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Publisher Gui Minhai could face five years in prison for running an illegal business across the border or a heavier sentence if convicted of being the ringleader of a business that

circulates material inciting state subversion.

Politics aside, legal experts said the offence the Mighty Current publishing house co-owner was accused of was not very serious and he could be jailed for less than five years.

“The punishment for running an illegal business is usually not very heavy ... and [Gui’s] case is not particularly serious,” said Professor Gu Minkang of City University’s law school. “Many people are concerned about the case. I believe [the court] will be careful about the way it is handled and then make a reasonable decision.”

Gui disappeared in mysterious circumstances in October in the Thai beach resort of Pattaya. It was speculated he had been kidnapped by Chinese agents because his publishing house specialised in books critical of the Chinese Communist Party.

About a week ago, mainland media quoted investigators as accusing Gui of “running an illegal business”. He was accused of ordering his associates to deliver about 4,000 books banned on the mainland across the border since October 2014 to 380 customers.

Under mainland Chinese law, if an illegal business operation involves less than 250,000 yuan (HK$300,000), then imprisonment would be below five years.

The law also states that if the quantity of banned books in question is 2,000 or more, then the sentence would be five years or below. It would be longer than five years for 5,000 or more.

Gu believed it likely that the publisher’s offence would be under the “below five years” purview. Gui’s sentence should eventually be “a matter of months instead of years”, he said.

It seems to me that [Gui’s] books are published and printed in Hong Kong. So in this case, in principle, it is arguable if he can be charged with running an illegal business on the mainland
Brendan Lam Hing-chau, Shue Yan University

A law lecturer at Shue Yan University, Brendan Lam Hing-chau, said it is arguable whether the publisher could be convicted of “running an illegal business”, as reports suggested.

“It seems to me that [Gui’s] books are published and printed in Hong Kong. So in this case, in principle, it is arguable if he can be charged with running an illegal business on the mainland,” Lam said.

But even if the illegal business charge does not stand, Lam said the publisher could be charged with disseminating publications that contain materials inciting subversion of the state, destroying national unity, inciting secession, or overthrowing the socialist system.

Such an offence carried a sentence of less than five years unless the person convicted played a major role.

Lam said it would be difficult to guess how much time the publisher could eventually face, but he also said the offence did not appear to be particularly serious.

Jin Zhong, chief editor of Open Magazine and a publisher of banned books, believed that Gui could be sentenced to 10 years due to the content and quantity of the books brought across the border.

But he said Gui, a naturalised Swedish citizen, might be expelled from the mainland after the court slapped a sentence on him. He cited the case of American-Chinese Harry Wu Hongda in the 1990s, who was expelled from the mainland after being sentenced to 15 years in jail for spying.

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