Hong Kong pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai was ordered back to jail on Thursday as the territory’s highest court said a judge may have erred in allowing him bail.
Lai, a vocal critic of the government in Beijing, is one of the highest-profile figures charged under the national security law that China imposed on the territory in late June in a bid to stamp out dissent.
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He was granted bail on December 23 after three weeks in custody on charges of fraud and endangering national security in a decision that was immediately appealed. The next hearing is on February 1.
Prosecutors have accused the 73-year-old of breaching the security law over statements he made on July 30 and August 18, in which they allege he requested foreign interference in Hong Kong’s affairs.
In his earlier written judgement, explaining his decision to grant bail, High Court judge Alex Lee said Lai’s remarks appeared to be nothing more than “comments and criticisms”.
But on Thursday, the judges questioned that assessment.
“We consider it reasonably arguable in the present case that the learned judge may have erred,” the judges said in their ruling, referring to Article 42 of the security law.
The article stipulates that “no bail shall be granted to a criminal suspect or defendant unless the judge has sufficient grounds for believing that the criminal suspect or defendant will not continue to commit acts endangering national security”.
Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown, reporting from Hong Kong, said it was “the first time” that the court of appeal in Hong Kong had ruled in a case involving the new national security law.
“A lot of legal experts are saying this decision doesn’t mark the end of Hong Kong’s judicial independence, but it’s beginning to look a little bit shaky,” Brown said.
The three judges who ruled on Thursday are on Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s “approved list of judges” who take part in national security cases, Brown said.
“It’s safe to say that Carrie Lam will be happy with today’s outcome, as well as her political masters in Beijing,” he said.
Lai, who was under effective house arrest as part of his bail conditions, left his home on Thursday morning in a black Mercedes. He entered the Court of Final Appeal without making any comments to supporters and media, many of whom swarmed the tycoon as he made his way into the courtroom.
He was charged with fraud on December 3 for allegedly violating the lease terms for office space for Next Digital, the media company he founded but from which he resigned . He was charged again on December 12 under the national security law and accused of colluding with foreign forces.
Political scientist Joseph Cheng says the “whole process” is being seen as a threat to the independence of the judiciary in Hong Kong.
“Jimmy Lai was initially denied bail, then he appealed and was granted bail by the high court – at this juncture, the pro-Beijing media in Hong Kong … severely attacked the judge’s decision,” Cheng told Al Jazeera.
“It is generally seen that the court of final appeal – which made the decision today – came under pressure from Beijing,” he said.
The Communist Party-controlled People’s Daily said in an editorial published on December 27 that Lai was “extremely dangerous” and an “insurgent” and urged the Hong Kong judiciary to “make the right decision” in the bail appeal.
Five people from Hong Kong’s Law Society, which has more than 10,000 registered members, expressed “grave” concern over the comments and called on Secretary of Justice Teresa Cheng to take action to defend the judiciary against “unwarranted” accusations by China’s state-run media.
Lai is among a string of pro-democracy activists and supporters arrested by Hong Kong police in recent months as authorities step up their crackdown on dissent in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
“His case is seen as a negative example … trying to teach Hong Kong people a lesson,” Cheng added.