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Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong protest leader Benny Tai sacked by university

Legal scholar says dismissal marks 'end of academic freedom' in the territory

Benny Tai, a leader of the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, speaks with reporters after being released on bail in August 2019.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- Legal scholar and pro-democracy activist Benny Tai was sacked by the University of Hong Kong on Tuesday over his role in the territory's 2014 Occupy Central movement, where he was found guilty of criminal offenses and imprisoned.

Eighteen of 20 members on the university's governing council voted to dismiss Tai as an associate law professor -- alleging misconduct -- following a three-hour meeting, reversing a decision made by a lower-level committee. The council's chairperson is appointed by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

"It marks the end of academic freedom in Hong Kong," Tai wrote on his Facebook page as he broke the news. "Academic staff in education institutions in Hong Kong are no longer free to make controversial statements to the general public about politically or socially controversial matters."

He was a founder of the 2014 Occupy Central protest, also known as the "Umbrella Movement," where tens of thousands of protesters paralyzed traffic as they occupied the financial hub's Central business district for 79 days to call for universal suffrage. 

Tai was sentenced to 16 months in prison on public nuisance charges last year, but he has been released on bail pending an appeal.

Through its Hong Kong liaison office, the Chinese government called the dismissal of Tai a "deed of justice" and a "purification of the teaching environment" at the university.

Another Occupy protest leader, lawmaker Shiu Ka-chun, also lost his job at Hong Kong Baptist University this week. He was told by the university on Monday that it would not renew his contract in the coming academic year, without citing reasons.

The University of Hong Kong's student union is launching a petition campaign in support of Tai.

"We are extremely disappointed and infuriated by the Council's decision," said Jeh Tsz-lam, president of the HKU student union.

"Despite his criminal convictions, Tai has been a really good teacher with an excellent reputation among students," she said. "If such a good teacher is being sacked, we have to ask, how can we safeguard academic freedom and independence under the national security law?"

Having served on the law faculty of HKU -- his alma mater -- for 30 years, Tai said he would continue his research and teaching in another capacity. "My fight for Hong Kong's rule of law also will not stop," he said.

"I am heartbroken to witness the demise of my beloved university," Tai wrote. "Yet... I have the confidence to see the rebirth of a free HKU in the future."

The Council of the University of Hong Kong said in a statement that, "to ensure a due and proper enquiry into the matter, the staff member was given a full opportunity to present the facts, submit written statements and relevant documents, and present the case in writing and in person."

"We hope members of the public understand that this is an internal personnel matter of the University and that the autonomy of the institution should be respected," it added.

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