The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Hong Kong graft police search home of pro-democracy media magnate Lai

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HONG KONG - Hong Kong anti-corruption police on Thursday searched the homes of a media magnate who is an outspoken critic of Beijing and a pro-democracy legislator after receiving a complaint alleging that lawmakers had taken bribes.

Wielding search warrants, officers from the Independent Commission Against Corruption paid a morning visit to the homes of Jimmy Lai and Lai's top aide Mark Simon, Simon said. Pro-democracy lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan's home and office also were searched.

The timing raised eyebrows because it comes days before a key decision by Beijing on direct elections for the leader of Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China. It also comes a month after a trove of documents was leaked to competing news outlets detailing big donations by Lai to local pro-democracy political parties and politicians, including Lee.

Lai told reporters camped outside his home in an upscale neighbourhood that "ICAC was here."

"They've all gone now and there is no further comment," he said.

Lai's company Next Media owns popular newspaper Apple Daily, which is frequently critical of Beijing.

Simon said ICAC officers spent three hours going through the computers in his home, but they "took away nothing, they downloaded nothing." He did not know if anything was taken from Lai's home.

The ICAC said in a statement it carried out the searches after it received complaints alleging that some lawmakers accepted bribes, which triggered an investigation. It did not identify anyone involved.

On Sunday, China's legislature is expected to unveil a proposal to allow Hong Kong voters, rather than a committee of pro-Beijing elites, to vote for their leader.

But the proposal is widely expected to require candidates to be vetted by a committee loyal to Beijing, which will anger democracy groups calling for genuine democracy and set the stage for a confrontation between the two sides.

Simon said the police searches were "a wonderful diversion two days, three days before what's not going to be very popular is announced."

The ICAC denied that there was any "political consideration" in carrying out the operation.

Shares of Next Media have been suspended from trading on the Hong Kong stock exchange, pending an "announcement related to inside information of the company," it said.

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Online:

ICAC: http://www.icac.org.hk/en/pr/

Follow Kelvin Chan at twitter.com/chanman

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