SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: March 27, 2017

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution

Institution(s):University of Hong Kong

Region & Country:Eastern Asia | Hong Kong 

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On March 27, 2017, state authorities arrested University of Hong Kong professors Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Chan Kin-man, Hong Kong Federation of Students leaders Tommy Cheung Sau-yin and Eason Chung, and five others, in connection with their work in support of Hong Kong’s Occupy campaign.

Professor Tai, a legal scholar, and Professor Chan, a scholar of sociology, played key roles in organizing the Occupy campaign, a social movement launched in 2014 that called for electoral and democratic reforms in Hong Kong. The movement gained international notoriety due to a 79-day sit-in in Hong Kong’s Central Square that began on September 28, 2014. The sit-in was reportedly co-organized by Professors Tai and Chan, and one of their co-defendants, Reverend Chu Yiu-ming.

On the night of March 27, 2017 — one day after the election of Beijing-backed Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngo as Hong Kong Chief Executive — Professors Tai and Chan, along with Messrs. Cheung and Chung and five others, were arrested and charged in connection with their roles in the Occupy movement. The scholars and Reverend Chu were each charged with “conspiracy to commit public nuisance,” “inciting others to commit public nuisance,” and “inciting people to incite others to commit public nuisance,” which apparently relate to the sit-in. If convicted, they could face up to 21 years imprisonment. The remaining co-defendants, including Messrs. Cheung and Chung, are facing up to 14 years imprisonment if convicted of the incitement-related charges brought against them. All nine were released on bail later that night and are scheduled to appear in court on March 30.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arbitrary arrest and prosecution of scholars in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression and association — conduct which is expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Arrests intended to limit freedom of expression and association undermine academic freedom and society generally. State authorities have an obligation to comply with internationally recognized standards of free expression, due process, and fair trial.

Update: On April 24, 2019, authorities announced that Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man had been sentenced to sixteen months’ imprisonment, having each been found guilty of “conspiracy to cause a public nuisance” and “inciting others to cause public nuisance” on April 8, in relation to their participation in Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy movement. The pair were sentenced alongside six other pro-democracy activists, including former student leader Eason Chung, who received an eight-month suspended prison sentence, and student leader Tommy Cheung, who was sentenced to 200 hours of community service. As of this update, Tai and Chan have filed an appeal of their convictions and sentences.

Update: On March 14, 2020, Chan Kin-man was released from prison after serving eleven months. Tai was released in August 2019 following an appeal. Both continue to appeal their conviction and sentences.