A pan-democrat lawmaker has branded the visit by anti-corruption officers to the home of Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying as “clear-cut political persecution”.
Civic Party lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching also said the timing of the visit was “suspicious”.
Trading in Next Media shares was halted this morning after Independent Commission against Corruption officers swooped on the Kowloon home of the company’s chairman.
It is not yet known whether Lai’s home was searched or whether the visit related to the media mogul’s donations to political figures and organisations.
Watch: Anti-corruption officers searched the Kowloon home of media mogul Jimmy Lai
Labour Party leader Lee Cheuk-yan said ICAC officers also visited his home earlier today and had taken away bank account documents. Lee quoted ICAC officials as saying that the watchdog was looking into the relationship between donations Lee received from Lai and a speech Lee made in the Legislative Council in January.
During the speech Lee mentioned reports that Standard Chartered bank had pulled advertisements from local newspapers under pressure from Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Lee did not mention Lai’s Apple Daily by name in the speech, according to the meeting’s minutes.
The pro-democracy news website House News – which closed in July citing political pressure and low advertising revenue – reported in January that Leung and his allies had been pressing banks, including Standard Chartered, to pull advertising from Apple Daily.
The story was also reported in international media.
Lee said he thought it was “strange” that the ICAC was linking donations he received from Lai to the speech, as he had been reflecting the Labour Party’s stance in the Legco meeting.
Mo said the ICAC’s visit was part of a national smear campaign against pan-democrats as the city’s debate on political reform reaches a climax.
The top national legislature looks set to approve on Sunday a restrictive framework for electing Hong Kong’s next chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017.
“Why did [the ICAC] not take action last week or the next week?” she asked. “It is clear-cut political persecution. What else could it be? Political donation is so ordinary – Obama gets it and Cameron gets it.”
Mo allegedly received a HK$500,000 donation from Lai, and said the ICAC did not approach her on Thursday.
Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, convenor of the Alliance for True Democracy who jointly received HK$300,000 with Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit from Lai, also said the ICAC had not approached him on Thursday.
He refused to comment on Lai’s case but said: “I am sure pan-democrats anticipate various types of political pressure.”
Former ICAC chief investigator Stephen Char Shik-ngor, now a barrister, said it was very normal for the ICAC to approach Lai and Lee as part of a preliminary investigation today.
“It is the ICAC’s responsibility to investigate any possible corruption complaints, but that doesn’t mean it has enough evidence to place any charges [on Lai and Lee],” he said, adding that the ICAC receives thousands of complaints every year but only manages to bring charges in several hundred cases.
He said the public should respect the watchdog’s independence.
“Politics has never been a factor for consideration in the ICAC’s tradition,” Char said.
Reacting to the possible link with Lee’s January speech in Legco, Char doubted if there would be a “valid or logical” case against Lee or Lai.
“Press freedom is the core value of the society, even Beijing-loyalists should defend it,” he said.
In late July a complaint about alleged donations made to pan-democrat politicians was filed with the ICAC by Tuen Mun district councillor Chan Wan-sang, of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, and the pro-establishment group Voice of Loving Hong Kong.
It is believed other complaints on the same subject have also been filed with the ICAC.