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HONG KONG (LifeSiteNews) — Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Catholic journalist Jimmy Lai was convicted of fraud this week by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In response, the U.S. State Department and 16 senators have condemned the verdict. 

The State Department deplored the Chinese National Security Law’s “systematic dismantling of Hong Kong’s autonomy” and called for a restoration of “respect for press freedom in Hong Kong, where a once-vibrant independent media environment has all but disappeared”:  

The United States condemns the October 25 verdict against Hong Kong democracy advocate Jimmy Lai, founder of the Apple Daily newspaper, on spurious fraud charges.

We remain deeply concerned about the deterioration in protection for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the systematic dismantling of Hong Kong’s autonomy under the National Security Law (NSL).  These include increased efforts to wield the NSL to suppress independent media, to silence dissenting views, and to stifle freedom of speech.

Though Lai’s fraud trial was not on NSL grounds, local authorities nonetheless imposed the NSL’s more restrictive legal procedures for this non-NSL case.  These actions undermine the PRC’s obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which is a binding international agreement, to uphold Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and protected rights and freedoms.

We urge PRC authorities to restore respect for press freedom in Hong Kong, where a once-vibrant independent media environment has all but disappeared.  Efforts to stifle press freedom and restrict the free flow of information undermine Hong Kong’s democratic institutions and hurt Hong Kong’s credibility as a business and financial hub.

Sixteen U.S senators also issued a statement defending Lai.  

“Jimmy Lai is a man of integrity and character — a strong advocate for press freedom and democracy, a man of faith, a devoted husband and father, and a hardworking entrepreneur,” they wrote.

“The Chinese Communist Party is using bogus fraud charges to smear Mr. Lai’s reputation and justify an additional sham National Security Law (NSL) trial in December.” 

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Following Lai’s conviction, the international Committee to Protect Journalists also issued a statement condemning the verdict: 

Today’s conviction of Jimmy Lai on trumped-up fraud charges shows that Hong Kong will stop at nothing to silence one of its fiercest media critics,” said CPJ President Jodie Ginsberg in New York. “Lai is clearly being targeted for his journalism, and the persecution must stop. Hong Kong authorities should let Lai go free and drop all charges against him.” 

The court convicted Lai of two counts of fraud for allegedly violating the terms of the lease of Next Digital’s headquarters. A sentence has yet to be announced, but Lai will appeal, Next Digital executive Mark Simon told CPJ via email.  

Lai has been behind bars since December 2020 and has serveda 20-month prison term for two other charges relating to his alleged involvement with unauthorized demonstrations. He is awaiting trial on national security charges, for which he faces life imprisonment; proceedings are expected to begin on December 1. 

In 2021, Lai received CPJ’s Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award in recognition of his extraordinary and sustained commitment to press freedom. 

China was the world’s worst jailer of journalists in 2021, according to CPJ’s December 1 prison census. It was also the first timethat journalists in Hong Kong appeared on CPJ’s census. 

Carlos Martinez de la Serna, another member of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said, “Jimmy Lai is a tireless advocate for press freedom and democracy and his imprisonment is a symbol.”  

The journalist’s trial is a way of “imprisoning one of the leading voices of democracy in Hong Kong,” Martinez added. 

Lai is an outspoken critic of Beijing for its totalitarian regime and persecution of Christians. Lai incurred the special ire of the CCP when he took part in pro-democracy protests in 2019, following China’s increased crackdown on religious, social, and political liberties. A wave of arrests followed, as well as the implementation of a new National Security Law (NSL) that has greatly reduced Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms, contrary to the 1997 treaty with Britain, which assured 50 years of freedom to the island. 

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Lai has faced trial before for his outspoken criticisms and political involvement in Hong Kong, but refuses to be intimidated by the CCP. In 2021, before his appearance in court for taking part in the 2019 civil protests, Lai’s Apple Daily newspaper published his handwritten letter from prison. It read: “It is our responsibility as journalists to seek justice. As long as we are not blinded by unjust temptations, as long as we do not let evil get its way through us, we are fulfilling our responsibility.”  

Before his arrest, Lai had told BBC China that he would not give in to intimidation.

“If they can induce fear in you, that’s the cheapest way to control you, and the most effective way, and they know it,” he said.

“The only way to defeat the way of intimidation is to face up to fear and don’t let it frighten you.” 

In July, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith led a Congressional hearing on the CCP’s increasingly aggressive crackdowns in Hong Kong on political, civil, and religious freedoms. Smith called the situation “a dismantling of civil society before our very eyes.” Smith highlighted Jimmy Lai as a heroic Catholic billionaire, businessman, and journalist, who refused to flee in the face of persecution, preferring instead to stand with his countrymen and fight for freedom. Smith noted that the religious persecution now falling on Hong Kong has kept the Catholic Church underground for decades on the mainland. 

Lai awaits trial on charges of violating the National Security Law beginning in December. 

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