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‘Stand tall’: Jimmy Lai writes letter to Hong Kong journalists before sentencing

Helen Davidson in Taipei
·4-min read
Photograph: Tyrone Siu/Reuters
Photograph: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

The Hong Kong media mogul and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai has told his staff to “stand tall” in a letter from prison, days before being sentenced in two of several cases against him.

Separately on Tuesday, his fellow activist Joshua Wong was sentenced to a further four months in jail, concluding another of the growing number of trials in a sweeping crackdown.

Lai, the 72-year-old founder of Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily, is in jail on remand after prosecutors successfully appealed against a court decision to grant him bail on national security charges. 

On Tuesday, Apple Daily published a handwritten letter Lai sent to staff, urging them to take care of themselves. 

“Freedom of speech is a dangerous job,” he wrote. “Please be careful not to take risks. Your own safety is very important.”

On the day of Lai’s arrest in August, hundreds of police raided the Apple Daily newsroom. It marked the start of an escalation in authorities’ moves against journalism in Hong Kong, which have since included the replacement of the head of public broadcaster RTHK, the cancellation of politically sensitive programmes, and the prosecution of a journalist who accessed a public database to investigate police brutality.

In his letter, Lai said it was “a journalist’s responsibility to uphold justice” but the situation in Hong Kong had deteriorated.

Watch: Veteran Hong Kong democracy leaders convicted over peaceful rally

 Related: Hong Kong activists plead guilty but say ‘history will absolve us’ 

“It is precisely this that we need to love and cherish ourselves. The era is falling apart before us, and it is time for us to stand tall.”

Lai, who is charged with foreign collusion offences, has not spoken publicly in months. Days after his arrest on national security charges, he said authorities “just want to show the teeth of the national security law, but they haven’t bitten yet. So let’s see what happens”.

On Tuesday, another high profile activist, 24-year-old Joshua Wong, was sentenced to an additional four months in jail for his involvement in an October 2019 unauthorised assembly and for violating an anti-mask law, Hong Kong Free Press reported.

Wong is already serving a 13-month sentence on other protest-related crimes, and is yet to face trial on charges under the national security law. Wong had pleaded guilty in January, and his co-accused, the veteran activist Koo Sze-yiu, was sentenced to five months in jail after pleading not guilty. Koo is being treated for late-stage cancer, and had just completed a jail term on a separate conviction.

Lai’s national security trial is pending, but earlier this month he was convicted over his involvement in one unauthorised protest, and last week he pleaded guilty over another. Sentencing for both is scheduled for Friday. The offences carrying maximum penalties of five years in prison.

The conviction relates to a rally on 18 August 2019, when an estimated 1.7 million people marched peacefully, but against police orders. The guilty plea was over a rally on 31 August, which had originally been called off by the organisers after police arrested pro-democracy lawmakers and activists, but crowds protested regardless. It later descended into violent clashes.

Lai’s co-accused include veteran activist Lee Cheuk Yan and five other leading pro-democracy figures. Martin Lee, an 82-year-old renowned barrister and former legislator considered the father of democracy in Hong Kong, is also facing sentencing for the first time on Friday.

Critics have argued the imposition of jail terms over the unauthorised protest offences would be disproportionate. In pleading guilty, Lee Cheuk Yan told the court: “History will absolve us.”

According to a transcript provided by Lee, he urged the judge to “understand my deep felt pain and sufferings to see how the state power had been using brute force against the people, and the sacrifices of so many Hongkongers who were injured, jailed or exiled, also to witness the deprivation of the basic rights of the people and the regression in democracy.”

“I saw my ideal crumbling but I will continue the struggle even though darkness is surrounding us. It is an ideal for which I am prepared for any sanction.”

More than 10,200 people have been arrested or charged over the 2019 mass protest movements, but just a fraction have reached the judicial system.

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