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Politics

Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai unexpectedly wins bail

Tycoon banned from tweeting, meeting foreign officials and giving interviews

Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai is escorted to a prison van on Dec. 12, after being charged under the national security law.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai was unexpectedly granted bail on Wednesday, though he will be subject to strict conditions.

Prosecutors immediately appealed the decision and the territory's High Court opened an extra round of hearings in the late afternoon, but the judge rejected their arguments. As a result, Lai is set to be released from detention.

The publisher, who is charged with collusion with foreign forces under the city's new national security law, had been denied bail by a lower court on Dec. 12, on the basis that he was considered a flight risk. His latest request was widely expected to be rejected, as the law places restrictions on granting bail to those arrested under this charge.

Nevertheless, the court set Lai's bail at 10 million Hong Kong dollars ($1.29 million). On top of that, it ruled that he should be barred from any behavior that encourages foreign countries or organizations to impose sanctions or otherwise take action against Hong Kong and China.

It also banned him from using social media, making public statements and taking media interviews. And in addition to having his passport seized, Lai will have to stay home, apart from reporting to the police three times a week and going to court.

The 73-year-old is the founder and publisher of Apple Daily in Hong Kong and Taiwan. His media organization is known for its long-standing support of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and opposition to the authoritarian regime in Beijing.

Lai is the highest-profile person to be charged so far under the national security law Beijing imposed in June. He was detained on Dec. 3 over a separate fraud charge, and after his first bail request was denied, the national security charge was added.

A conviction could bring life imprisonment, the heaviest punishment possible under this law. Any national security cases can also be transferred to mainland China.

A rejection of his bail would have extended his detention until April 16. But there may be other twists to the case ahead.

The court's decision to grant bail "will have challenged Beijing's intention to use Hong Kong's legal system to quell protest and dissent in the territory," according to a daily client note issued on Wednesday by A2 Global Risk.

The British consultancy thinks Beijing is "unlikely to accept the court's decision without demonstrating its ultimate authority over Hong Kong and its judiciary, further risking the territory's legal system that underpins its international relevance and utility as a key financial and trading center."

A2 Global Risk expects China to somehow "correct" the court's decision over the Christmas period, when the international reaction may be weaker than usual.

Additional reporting by Stella Wong.

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