A pro-Beijing lawmaker has accused former Occupy leader Benny Tai Yiu-ting of sedition for controversial remarks on the possibility of Hong Kong independence and launched an online petition urging the Department of Justice to press charges against the legal scholar.
The accusation by Junius Ho Kwan-yiu centred on comments Tai made at a forum in Taiwan in March. The University of Hong Kong associate professor suggested the city could consider independence or enter into a confederation with other regions of China should the country become democratic in the future.
Ho on Wednesday urged the Department of Justice to say whether it would charge Tai within 40 days, or by September 24.
“Tai made the remark in late March, and the law requires criminal prosecution within six months so that’s why we set the date – leaving a few days as a buffer before the October 5 or 6 deadline,” Ho said.
The department would not comment on Ho’s call.
The sedition law under sections 9 and 10 of the Crimes Ordinance cited by Ho has never been used since being written into the statute books in the 1930s.
In response, Tai referred to Article 63 of the Basic Law, which says the justice department shall control criminal prosecutions “free from any interference”.
Tai previously defended his independence remarks during a talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) in June, saying he was exercising academic freedom by posing such a possibility.
After Tai spoke in Taiwan, the Hong Kong government issued an unusually harsh condemnation of him, which was followed by a similar statement from the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office as well as Beijing’s liaison office in the city.
John Reading SC, former deputy director of public prosecutions, said technically Hong Kong did not have a sedition law as it expired following the handover in 1997, meaning any remarks about independence would not be prosecuted.
He added the express requirement for the department to press charges before October could test whether speaking about independence might break the law.
The government has been under increasing pressure to curb advocacy of independence, despite the wide consensus among legal experts that merely speaking about separatism would not constitute an offence.
On Tuesday, the pro-establishment camp condemned the FCC for hosting a talk by Andy Chan Ho-tin, founder of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, which is facing an unprecedented ban in the city. Hong Kong and Macau Office director Zhang Xiaoming also weighed in, arguing both Chan and the FCC breached the law.
Separately, Ho asked the University of Hong Kong to suspend Tai from teaching ahead of his trial in November relating to his role in the pro-democracy Occupy movement marked by street protests.
A university spokesman would not comment, but sources from Tai’s faculty said it had no plans to do so.