HONG KONG – A Hong Kong judge granted bail to pro-democracy media icon Jimmy Lai on Wednesday, but imposed extensive restrictions preventing him from using social media, giving interviews or leaving his home, expressing concern about the deterioration of freedom of expression during a national security law.
Mr. Lai, 73, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent anti-government voice, was indicted this month under the expansive new law introduced by the central Chinese government in June to stave off months of protests. Police accused him of collaborating with foreign forces, including lobbying for foreign governments, to impose sanctions on Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese territory. Sir. Lais supporters called the indictment an overt attempt to silence him.
Sir. Lai’s release was an unexpected exposure to the pro-democracy movement, which has faltered under the weight of security law and continued movements from Beijing to erode its base of support. Mr. Lai was already denied bail twice: earlier this month due to an unrelated fraud charge and again a week later on the national security charge. But his lawyers appealed, and the appeals judge, Alex Lee, agreed to release him.
The Hong Kong government immediately requested to appeal this decision but was denied.
Even when many in the protest movement celebrated Mr. Lai’s release, they also condemned its terms. The tycoon’s bail was set at $ 10 million, about $ 1.3 million, and he was ordered to remain under house arrest, except when he reported to police three times a week.
In addition, the judge ordered Mr Lai not to use social media, meet with foreign officials or publish articles in print or online. Mr. Lai was former active on Twitter, which condemns the Chinese Communist Party, and the newspaper he founded, the Apple Daily, is one of Hong Kong’s last remaining openly pro-democracy publications. Sir. Lai had also traveled to the United States to meet with prominent U.S. officials, but these visits took place prior to the introduction of the Security Act, which, as written, is not believed to be retroactive.
Lawyers called the bail conditions unusually broad, noting that they were usually only intended to prevent an accused person from committing multiple potential offenses while he was being released.
“The only statements that the court should be concerned about are statements that may constitute an offense,” such as new requests for sanctions, said Philip Dykes, president of the Hong Kong Bar Association.
But the extensive nature of the restrictions may in part be born of the broad nature of the Security Act itself, said Senia Ng, a lawyer and member of the Democratic Democratic Party. The law does not clearly define many of the offenses it establishes, instead of using general terms such as terrorism, undermining or co-operation.
“The problem here is the offense of national security is formulated very broadly, so much so that any kind of activity can come within it – and especially speech,” Ms Ng wrote in an email. “This basically gives the court the right to impose very broad and far-reaching bail conditions.”
Sir. Lais lawyers had proposed some of the restrictions, including the ban on using social media. But Ms Ng said the judges were ultimately responsible for ensuring that the conditions imposed were in line with the circumstances.
“Clearly, the bail conditions correspond to serious and direct attacks on Mr. Lais’ right to freedom of expression, ”she said.
Mr. Lai is scheduled to return to court in April.