Who can ensure a fair trial for Benny Tai?

August 31, 2017 13:29
A petition organized by a pro-Beijing figure has collected 30,000 signatures calling for the sacking of Benny Tai (above) from the University of Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters

Three years after the Occupy Central campaign, student leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow are in jail for their roles in the democracy protests.

Now the pro-Beijing camp has shifted its focus to Benny Tai, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and a co-founder of the Occupy Central movement.

Recently, pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho said he might seek an injunction to stop Tai from teaching at HKU. He posted on his social media page a letter to HKU to that effect.

In addition, Ho organized an online petition urging the public to support the sacking of Tai. The petition was peppered with questions such as “do you want Hong Kong to face disturbance?”, “do you want students to be misled into breaking the law?”, “do you agree that law professors are inciting the public to break the law?”

According to local newspapers, the online petition has drawn more than 30,000 signatures out of a target of 40,000, putting pressure on HKU to take action before Tai is proven guilty in court.

On Wednesday, outgoing vice chancellor Peter Mathieson, said that he had received a handful of requests to sack Tai. Mathieson did not say who sent the letters but said he had read them and respected their opinions but added he didn't agree with all of them.

“We have our procedures for taking action against students and staff if we think they infringe the regulations of the university. But we are not a surrogate courtroom,” Mathieson said. “The court has its own opportunity to make decisions about guilt or innocence and we respect those decisions.”

It seems that the pro-Beijing camp worked behind the scenes by mobilizing their supporters to write letters to press for the sacking of Tai. That’s what they can do to show their loyalty to the authorities before the court even makes a judgment.

In March, Tai and other participants in the Occupy campaign were charged by the police. Tai, together with the Rev. Chu Yiu-ming and Dr. Chan Kin-man, faces three counts including conspiracy to commit public nuisance, inciting others to commit public nuisance, and inciting others to incite others to commit public nuisance, starting from March 27, 2013, when they published their Occupy manifesto in local newspapers, until December 2, 2014, when they turned themselves into police custody during the Occupy campaign.

Given Tai and other participants joined the campaign by way of civil disobedience, they did prepare themselves for punishment including a jail term. But the pro-Beijing camp forgot that the court is yet to start hearing the case.

All those charged are presumed innocent until proven guilty. It is quite a dangerous precedent for Ho to ask HKU to remove Tai before he is proven guilty.

In fact, after the Court of Appeal accepted the government's request to give harsher punishment to the three student activists, the public expected Tai and other leaders to face imprisonment.

In the judgment that sentenced the student leaders to the jail, Justice Wally Yeung said that some people, including academics, promote slogans to encourage others to break the law. Yeung also said these people "publicly express contempt of the law, [and] not only do they refuse to admit that their illegal activity is wrong, but they even view it as honorable or proud acts. These arrogant, self-righteous thoughts, unfortunately have an impact on some young people, causing them to casually commit acts which destroy public order and peace during gatherings or demonstrations. This case is a perfect example of this unhealthy trend.”

Since Yeung’s judgment has become a precedent for the lower courts, Tai and other leaders in the campaign could face a harsher punishment.

From a legal perspective, Yeung’s judgment may not have political considerations but his example of "unhealthy trend" pointed the finger at Tai for his civil disobedience campaign.

There was no question that Tai and other activists would be involved in such social campaign three years ago to show their democratic advocacy. But bear in mind that whether they are guilty is determined by the courts, not by political figures or key opinion leaders on the internet.

Paul Shieh, former chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, said that civil disobedience is important because one day Hong Kong may have laws or systems that are so harsh that people have to resort to civil disobedience to oppose them.

However, Shieh was also critical of Tai and his interpretation of civil disobedience. He said that in 2015, there were a lot of people who took creative liberties with the idea of civil disobedience, and this included Tai. He said Tai has a lot to answer for.

Now that Tai is being labeled guilty before his case is heard, who can promise him and other activists that they will have a fair trial?

-- Contact us at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer