Hong Kong (AFP)

Hong Kong officials said on Friday they had frozen the assets of pro-democracy press boss Jimmy Lai, including his media stakes, for violating national security law.

The Security Bureau, installed in 2020 in Hong Kong as part of a new security law imposed by Beijing, said it had ordered the freezing of Jimmy Lai's assets in the media group Next Digital, as well as "ownership of accounts in local banks of three companies which he owns".

The 73-year-old self-made billionaire irritates Beijing over its newspapers' support for the pro-democracy movement that sparked massive protests in 2019.

Its Apple Daily has consistently supported the protests that followed relentlessly for months in 2019 in the Asian financial hub.

Jimmy Lai was arrested last year for breaking a new security law imposed by Beijing to suppress this movement in the former British colony handed over to China in 1997.

Born in mainland China and illegally arrived at the age of 12 in Hong Kong where he made his fortune, Mr. Lai has been charged with "collusion with foreign powers", accused of supporting the idea of ​​foreign sanctions against the leaders of China and Hong Kong.

He was sentenced in April to 14 months in prison, for having been convicted of organizing and participating in pro-democracy protests in August 2019.

Mr. Lai's two main headlines - Apple Daily and the digital-only Next magazine - have stood out from their competitors who either back Beijing or take a much more cautious line.

In a statement, Apple Daily said the asset freeze affected 70% of Lai's shares in Next Digital, the media group's parent company, as well as "three bank accounts" held by the tycoon's private companies.

"The operations and financial assets of the group and Apple Daily will not be affected," the newspaper said.

This asset freeze comes as the Chinese authorities are engaged in a strong takeover of Hong Kong where they intend to silence dissidents.

Spurred on by a law on extraditions to mainland China, where the judiciary is under the influence of political power, the 2019 protests were followed overwhelmingly, posing the most glaring challenge to pro-Beijing authorities since the handover.

Beijing imposed a national security law last year, promising it would not affect freedoms.

China pledged to preserve freedoms in Hong Kong when the UK surrendered in 1997.

But many pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong have since been arrested, jailed or fled abroad.

Over 100 people have been charged under the law.

They face life imprisonment if found guilty, and few are released on bail.

Beijing recently unveiled a new plan - dubbed "Patriots rule Hong Kong" - to control who runs for office and reduce the number of directly elected seats in the local parliament to a small minority.

© 2021 AFP