HONG KONG – A Hong Kong media tycoon known for his fierce opposition to China was arrested on Friday for his role in a pro-democracy protest last year, police said, giving another blow to the city's independent media.
The tycoon, Jimmy Lai, a rare figure among Hong Kong's elite for his willingness to take on Beijing, he owns the Next Media Group, which publishes a popular pro-democracy newspaper and website called Apple Daily. His arrest occurs when the city deals with the two shocks of the protest movement and now with the coronavirus outbreak.
His unique status as a prominent businessman in Hong Kong, which openly supports the movement for democracy and protests against the government, made him a frequent target of elements backed by Beijing.
Lai was arrested on allegations of attending an unauthorized assembly on Aug. 31, a police spokesman said on Friday, without naming him specifically. That day, crowds of protesters defied the police ban on their march and clashed with police. Two other veteran pro-democracy activists were also arrested on Friday for their roles in the protest.
The unexpected high-profile arrests that took place in the activists' homes were made like Hong Kong, already shaken by months of protests last year, struggled to contain the coronavirus outbreak, which fueled panic and even more mistrust by the authorities.
Lai was also arrested on allegations of "criminal intimidation" for an incident that took place three years ago, the police spokesman said. Oriental Daily, a pro-Beijing publication, posted a clip of an exchange that day, on June 4, 2017, which showed Lai using obscene language and threatening one of his reporters at a vigil in celebration of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
"Finally arrested after more than two and a half years," read the website's headline. It was not clear what preceded the exchange.
Mark Simon, Lai's chief aide, confirmed the arrest.
The arrests were made in the same week as a court in China sentenced a Hong Kong bookseller, Gui Minhai, to 10 years in prison. Bill sold gossip books about China's leaders and mysteriously disappeared in Thailand in 2015 and then emerged as the target of China's efforts to contain dissent.
The arrests on Friday morning came after the arrests of more than 7,000 protesters since June, as part of the Hong Kong government's campaign to crack down on the protest movement.
China has worked tirelessly to defame Lai, who has provided a powerful and comprehensive platform for mostly young and leaderless protesters in Hong Kong.
In a Facebook post on Friday, the Hong Kong Labor Party confirmed that the police arrested their vice president, Lee Cheuk-yan, a longtime advocate of democracy, for his role in the August 31 march. He condemned the police for "indiscriminate arrests" and "suppressing the right of the Hong Kong people to protest".
Yeung Sum, another activist and former Democratic Party president, was also arrested on Friday, the party said.
Alexandra Stevenson contributed reporting.