Trading in Next Digital halted after Jimmy Lai’s assets frozen

The Hong Kong stock exchange has halted trading of shares in media firm Next Digital after authorities froze assets belonging to its founder Jimmy Lai.

The move came after the media tycoon and nine pro-democracy activists pleaded guilty to taking part in an unlawful assembly in 2019.

Lai is already serving a 14-month sentence for his role in two other unauthorised assemblies during a period when Hong Kong residents were involved in mass anti-government protests.

Jimmy Lai
Pro-democracy activists outside a court in Hong Kong (AP)

The company said it requested the trading halt after authorities announced the freeze on Lai’s assets on Friday.

Next Digital publishes the pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily, and the company was founded by Lai, its controlling shareholder.

Lai and the nine others who pleaded guilty over a demonstration that occurred on October 1 2019 can make pleas in mitigation on May 24 before sentences are handed down on May 28. They face up to five years in jail.

The mass protests started over a proposed extradition bill, then evolved to include broader demands for democracy.

Next Magazine
Copies of Next Magazine, owned by Jimmy Lai, on a news stand in Hong Kong (AP)

After months of protests and sometimes violent clashes between security forces and protesters, Beijing began tightening its control over the territory.

Last year it imposed a national security law on the city that is widely seen as a crackdown on dissent.

The law criminalises secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion, and police have arrested more than a hundred people under the legislation.

Lai is under investigation by the national security department for allegedly colluding with foreign powers and endangering national security.

His assets were frozen under the national security law, which states that if there are reasonable grounds to believe that property is related to a national security offense, then “relevant persons and organisations must not, directly or indirectly, deal with certain property which is reasonably suspected to be related to offences endangering national security”, the government said in a statement.

In recent months, Hong Kong police have arrested most of the city’s pro-democracy activists, and have put prominent activists such as Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow behind bars.

Most of the pro-democracy activists who were arrested are still in police custody.

Last week, the Taiwan Apple Daily newspaper said it would stop publishing a print edition.

The paper said it had been losing money, and Next Digital could no longer support it because “pro-China forces” had blocked access to advertising for its flagship Apple Daily newspaper and other publications in Hong Kong.