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Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai arrested under controversial national security law

Hong Kong authorities broadened their enforcement of a new national security law on Monday, arresting nine people including media tycoon Jimmy Lai. Police searched the headquarters of Lai's Next Digital group and carted away boxes of what they said was evidence.

Accused of collaborating with foreigners, Lai's arrest is the highest-profile yet under new security laws

CBC freelance reporter Richard Kimber reports from outside Lai's headquarters in Hong Kong. 1:43

Hong Kong authorities broadened their enforcement of a new national security law on Monday, arresting media tycoon Jimmy Lai, searching the headquarters of his Next Digital group and carting away boxes of what they said was evidence.

Two days after Chinese and Hong Kong officials shrugged off sanctions imposed on them by the U.S., the moves showed China's determination to enforce the new law and curb dissent in the semi-autonomous city after months of massive pro-democracy demonstrations last year.

The police action marked the first time the law was used against news media, stoking fears that authorities are suppressing press freedom. Next Digital operates Apple Daily, a feisty pro-democracy tabloid that often condemns China's Communist Party government. Last year, the newspaper frequently urged readers to take part in the anti-government protests.

Hong Kong police arrested Lai on Monday morning, an aide to the businessman said, in the highest-profile detention under the new law since it took effect in late June. Lai, 71, is an outspoken pro-democracy figure who regularly criticizes China's authoritarian rule and Hong Kong's government.

Mark Simon, a Next Digital executive and Lai's aide, said Lai was charged with collusion with foreign powers. He said police searched the homes of Lai and his son and detained several other members of the media company.

Media mogul Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, is detained by the national security unit in Hong Kong on Monday. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Hong Kong police said they arrested at least nine people between the ages of 23 and 72 on suspicion of violating the new security law, with offences including collusion with a foreign country and conspiracy to defraud. They did not release the names of those arrested or provide further details of the charges.

Last month, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said pro-democracy activist Nathan Law and five others were wanted under the national security law, although all six had fled overseas. Law relocated to Britain in July to continue international advocacy work for Hong Kong.

Law tweeted on Monday that it appears fellow activist Agnes Chow, 23, was also being detained on Monday.

Persistent Beijing critic

Following Lai's arrest, about 200 police raided Next Digital's headquarters, cordoning off the area, searching desks and at times getting into heated exchanges with staff. What police were looking for in the building wasn't clear, although they later said they took away 25 boxes of evidence for processing.

Lai, who was arrested at his mansion in Kowloon in the morning, was also brought to the headquarters of Next Digital, where he remained for about 2½ hours before police took him away in a car.

WATCH: Lai recently spoke to CBC News about dissent in Hong Kong:

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai has already taken huge risks by having his newspaper openly criticize Beijing, including the new national security law, and he’s been arrested for organizing pro-democracy protests. He tells National co-host Adrienne Arsenault that Hong Kong as it's known to its people and the world is in danger of disappearing. 5:50

"We are completely shocked by what's happening now, with the arrest and followed by the ongoing raid inside the headquarters of Next Digital," said Chris Yeung, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.

"With the passage of the national security law and the really tough powers given to the police in their operations, we have seen now what we call `white terror' become a reality, which will affect media organizations and journalists' reporting."

Police unblocked Next Digital's headquarters at mid-afternoon, with senior superintendent of police Steve Li saying that staff were free to resume their work.

The reason for the charge against Lai wasn't clear.

A pro-China supporter holds a champagne outside the headquarters of Apple Daily and Next Media to celebrate after media mogul Jimmy Lai was arrested. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

In May, shortly after Beijing announced its intention to pass the national security law for Hong Kong, Lai condemned the legislation in a series of tweets. The state-owned newspaper Global Times called the tweets "evidence of subversion."

Lai also wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in May stating that China was repressing Hong Kong with the legislation.

"I have always thought I might one day be sent to jail for my publications or for my calls for democracy in Hong Kong," Lai wrote. "But for a few tweets, and because they are said to threaten the national security of mighty China? That's a new one, even for me."

U.S. Secretary of State condemns Lai's arrest:

Lai was earlier arrested in February and April for allegedly participating in unauthorized protests last year. He also faces charges of joining an unauthorized vigil on June 4 marking the anniversary of Beijing's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Last year, Lai met with U.S. officials at the White House to discuss a controversial bill — since withdrawn — that would have allowed criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China for trial.

U.S. politicians censured

But Hong Kong officials have said the security law, which took effect June 30, would not be applied retroactively. The law is widely seen as a means to curb dissent after anti-government protests rocked Hong Kong for months last year.

The legislation outlaws secessionist, subversive and terrorist acts, as well as collusion with foreign forces in Hong Kong's internal affairs. The maximum punishment for serious offenders is life imprisonment.

HK activist on Monday's developments:

In Beijing, meanwhile, China announced sanctions on 11 Americans, including six Republican members of Congress, in an escalating battle between the two nations over technology, security, trade and human rights. 

"The relevant actions of the U.S. blatantly intervened in Hong Kong affairs, grossly interfered in China's internal affairs, and seriously violated international law and the basic norms of international relations," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a daily briefing on Monday.

The six included congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey and senators Tom Cotton (Arkansas), Ted Cruz (Texas), Josh Hawley (Missouri), Marco Rubio (Florida) and Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania).

Beijing already placed a travel ban on Rubio, Cruz and Smith last month.

With files from CBC News

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