Next Digital trading halted after Jimmy Lai’s assets frozen

The Hong Kong stock exchange has halted trading of Next Digital shares after assets belonging to its founder Jimmy Lai were frozen

HONG KONG — The Hong Kong stock exchange halted trading of Next Digital shares Monday after authorities froze assets belonging to its founder Jimmy Lai.

Later in the day, 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 unauthorized assemblies during a period when Hong Kong residents were involved in mass anti-government protests.

Next Digital said in a filing that it requested the trading halt after authorities announced the freeze on Lai’s assets Friday. Next Digital publishes 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 Oct. 1, 2019, can make pleas mitigation pleas on May 24 and the sentences will be handed down on May 28. They face up to five years imprisonment.

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

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 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.