Security chief defends freezing of Lai's assets

Top News | 18 May 2021

Michael Shum and agencies

Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu says he considered the information he had in full before freezing Jimmy Lai's assets, claiming it was aimed at criminal proceedings and not at suppressing press freedom.

Lee insisted that freezing assets is an important move to prevent and stop activities endangering national security, adding that as security chief he is empowered by the national security law to freeze assets related to such activities upon reasonable suspicion.

The Security Bureau froze Lai's assets on Friday, including his 71 percent stake in Next Digital, as well as the assets in the bank accounts that belong to three companies owned by the tycoon.

This prompted the Hong Kong Stock Exchange to halt trading of Next Digital shares yesterday upon the media company's request.

Lee told a press briefing yesterday: "Endangering national security is a serious crime and the government will not tolerate such behavior.

"Those participating in such behavior will receive the full force of the law."

He claimed that freezing assets is also an important measure to combat criminal proceedings as well as funding illegal activities and the effectiveness has been recognized by countries around the world.

It is not an issue regarding private assets, Lee said, as there are laws defining criminal proceedings and it is completely legal for him to freeze Lai's assets.

Lee also brushed off claims that the Security Bureau's move is affecting press freedom. "It is illegal activities that we are dealing with, not press work," he added.

But he refused to disclose any details of the case, citing ongoing legal procedures, as Lai had already been prosecuted for colluding with foreign forces under the national security law, an offense that carries a life sentence.

Lee also declined to comment amid rumors that his bureau is planning to take over pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily before July 1, but stressed that the government will deal with organizations in accordance with the law.

Next Digital said in a filing with the stock exchange that it requested the trading halt after authorities announced the freeze on Lai's assets.

Next Digital publishes Apple Daily. The company was founded by Lai, who is its controlling shareholder with a 71 percent stake in the company.

This would be the first time a listed company has been targeted by the national security law.

The authority's move raises questions about Next Digital's survival as a company, with its pro-democratic stance adversely impacting its advertising revenue.

Apple Daily in Taiwan published its last print issue yesterday. It said it was losing money after "pro-China forces" had blocked access to advertising in Next Digital publications.

The newspaper bid a huge "goodbye" on its front page, putting an end to its operation as print media since 2003. The company will focus its resources on developing its website.

michael.shum@singtaonewscorp.com



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