HK university fires professor who led protests

A leading Hong Kong university has fired its law professor, Benny Tai, due to a criminal conviction over his role in the 2014 pro-democracy protests.

Mr Tai, 56, accused the University of Hong Kong (HKU) of bowing to pressure from Beijing and said the ruling was “the end of academic freedom”.

Mr Tai was one of the founders of the “umbrella protests” that paralysed Hong Kong’s business districts for weeks.

Last year, a court sentenced him to 16 months in prison for his role.

He was granted bail in August, pending an appeal.

The 2014 protests, which were largely peaceful, lasted for more than 70 days as people took to the streets to call for democracy.

The university governing council’s decision to dismiss Mr Tai goes against a previous ruling by its senate, which said while Mr Tai had committed misconduct, there were insufficient grounds to dismiss him.

According to local media, 18 members of the university’s committee voted for his removal, with two against.

If he wishes to appeal the decision, he would have to either go through the university’s chancellor – Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam – or a judicial review, the South China Morning Post reports.

Writing in a Facebook post, Mr Tai said: “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.”

The decision to fire him was “made not by the University of Hong Kong but by an authority beyond the University through its agents,” he said, adding “I am heartbroken to witness the demise of my beloved university.”

The university said in a statement that it had “resolved a personnel issue concerning a teaching staff member” after a “stringent and impartial due process”.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong-Beijing Liaison Office, which represents Beijing’s government in Hong Kong, welcomed his removal, saying: “The University of Hong Kong’s decision to fire Benny Tai is a move that punishes evil and praises the virtuous.”

Chinese state media has accused him of colluding with foreign forces and described him as a “hardcore troublemaker”.

The university’s ruling comes weeks after a controversial security law was passed in the city, giving China more powers there.

The law criminalises secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces, but critics say that the terms are vaguely defined and the law effectively curtails Hong Kong’s freedoms.

It also comes amid local media reports that elections to Hong Kong’s parliament – the Legislative Council – could be postponed by a year. News outlets HK01, Hong Kong Economic Times and TVB said the government had made the decision, which is yet to be formally announced, due to coronavirus concerns.

Mr Tai has been accused by the Hong Kong-Beijing Liaison Office of trying to launch a revolution. He had helped organise opposition primaries earlier this month, which attracted hundreds of thousands of voters.

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