The ruling by the Court of Final Appeal comes amid heavy pressure from the Chinese government and state media to keep Lai in custody, arguing that Lai's crimes against the state are particularly egregious and that he possesses the means to flee the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city.
Lai was arrested in a December sweep against pro-democracy activists accused over their involvement in 2019 anti-government protests. First refused bail Lai was later released on appeal, leading to editorials attacking Hong Kong’s judiciary in the pages of the ruling Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily. He was returned to jail on New Year’s Eve ahead of a new hearing.
Lai, an outspoken advocate for democracy in Hong Kong, had been charged with fraud on Dec. 3 for allegedly violating the lease terms for office space for his media company, Next Digital. He was later charged again on Dec. 12 under the national security law, on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces and endangering national security.
The law states that a defendant will not get bail unless the judge is sure the suspected crime will not be committed again, a break with Hong Kong’s common law system inherited from Britain.
As at his previous hearings, Lai stepped from the prison van into an inflatable tunnel connecting with the court entrance, in an apparent attempt to minimize his exposure to the numerous journalists waiting outside.
The move keeps Lai in custody at least until the beginning of his trial scheduled for April and underscores his status as one of the most high-profile critics of China's growing intolerance for political opposition in Hong Kong. Participation in anti-government protests has become a focus of law enforcement in the city and the basis on which several pro-democracy activists have been jailed in recent months, including student protest leaders Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow.
The national security law was imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing after the city’s local legislature was unable to overcome local opposition to its enactment. Backers say it has returned calm to the city's streets while opponents consider it a betrayal of China’s pledge to maintain the city’s legal, civil and human rights for 50 years after its handover from British colonial rule in 1997.
The law effectively curbs most opposition political activity by giving authorities broad powers to prosecute critics on loosely defined charges of subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers while subjecting private speech and social media postings to possible criminal punishment. Serious offenders could face up to life imprisonment.
Lai, 72, made his fortune in the retail clothing trade before branching out into media. He stepped down as publisher of the Apple Daily newspaper but the publication remains a popular forum for opposition views in a media landscape dominated by Beijing-backed outlets.