20 March 2019
Occupy Movement co-founders and six other democracy campaigners appear outside a court ahead of their trial on Monday. Benny Tai (inset) suspects he may get one or two years in jail. Photo: HKEJ
Occupy Movement co-founders and six other democracy campaigners appear outside a court ahead of their trial on Monday. Benny Tai (inset) suspects he may get one or two years in jail. Photo: HKEJ

Benny Tai prepares for the worst as Occupy trial begins

As a courtroom trial begins of key leaders of the 2014 Occupy Central protests, a main figure behind the civil disobedience campaign has said he is preparing himself for a potential jail sentence.  

Benny Tai Yiu-ting, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and one of the three co-founders of the pro-democracy Occupy Movement, says he could get jail time of one to two years, going by rulings in the recent past in relation to cases pertaining to anti-government protesters.

In an interview with the Hong Kong Economic Journal, Tai pointed to comments by a top court earlier this year in a case involving three prominent student leaders who had been prosecuted for storming a barricaded area outside the government headquarters in 2014 ahead of Occupy.

While reviewing prison sentences that were handed last year to the trio — Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Alex Chow Yong-kang — a panel of five judges of the Court of Final Appeal (CFA) said civil disobedience is not a mitigating factor if defendants “cross the line of acceptability”, particularly if violence is involved.

Such an idea deserves to be recognized in Hong Kong and every jurisdiction that respects personal rights, the CFA said.

Given the precedent, Tai believes the worst-case scenario is that he would be found guilty of all the charges against him, and that he would likely be sentenced to one or two years in jail.

The academic said he hopes the case will prompt citizens to continue contemplating the issue of democratization in Hong Kong.

On Monday, a West Kowloon magistrates’ court began hearings on Tai and eight others after they were charged in March last year in relation to the 2014 Occupy protests, accused of conspiracy to cause public nuisance, inciting others to cause public nuisance, and inciting people to incite others to cause public nuisance.

Besides the three co-founders of the movement — Tai, Professor Chan Kin-man, and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming — the other six who were in the dock on Monday over the Occupy movement were Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan Suk-chong; social welfare functional constituency lawmaker Shiu Ka-chun; Tommy Cheung Sau-yin and Eason Chung Yiu-wa, who are former members of the Hong Kong Federation of Students; Raphael Wong Ho-ming, vice-chairman of the League of Social Democrats; and former Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Wing-tat.

Tai noted that the government decided to prosecute them a day after the chief executive election last year.

The six people being prosecuted, apart from Occupy co-founders, seem to have been “particularly chosen”, Tai said, adding that there is reason to suspect that political motives played a role.

As for his post with the HKU, Tai stressed that he likes his job and there are six years to go before his retirement.

The law professor said he has been hoping to keep his university post as long as he can. He urged the school to consider whether it is a good reason to sack him only because of criminal liability.

In other comments, Tai noted that whatever the court’s decision, it will lead to polarization among opinions in society, which he said is not necessarily a bad thing.

Society has to keep thinking on the issue of democracy, he said.

In related news, a cross-party group of eight British members of parliament on Sunday criticized the Hong Kong government, accusing it of using vague and ambiguous charges in order to intimidate and silence pro-democracy figures, RTHK reported.

The group called on the British government to raise the matter with its Hong Kong counterpart and consider further action based on commitments in the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

In response, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said Hong Kong’s freedoms are protected under the Basic law.

The British lawmakers appear not sufficiently familiar with Hong Kong, Cheung said, while advising them to refrain from interfering in Hong Kong affairs and focus instead on UK matters.

In the latest news, the nine Occupy case defendants, appearing in a Hong Kong court on Monday, pleaded not guilty to all of the charges against them.

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