A row over whether jailed Occupy co-founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting should be immediately dismissed from his teaching job has escalated with rival alumni groups issuing petitions to the University of Hong Kong.
Students, meanwhile, spoke highly of Tai’s contribution to democracy and the university’s law school, and also launched their own petition.
The HKU associate law professor, who was among four Occupy leaders jailed last week for public nuisance charges over the 2014 protests, was sentenced to 16 months’ imprisonment.
In a petition to the university’s vice chancellor Zhang Xiang and governing council chairman Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, a group of 29 alumni asked HKU to immediately launch a disciplinary inquiry against Tai, 54, for advocating civil disobedience “in the disguise of an academic”.
The group said: “A criminal for making unwise and morally corrupt advocacy, committing such misconduct, how could he be qualified to teach in HKU?”
Signatories included legislator Junius Ho Kwan-yiu, local National People’s Congress deputies Choy So-yuk and Maggie Chan Man-ki, ex-lawmaker Kaizer Lau Ping-cheung and former government information coordinator Andrew Fung Wai-kwong.
They also claimed Tai had failed to publish any academic articles since 2013. The Post, however, found he had published at least six essays during the period.
In response, the HKU Alumni Concern Group joined another 30 alumni to launch a petition on Tuesday urging the university to defer any inquiry until all court proceedings were completed as Tai had indicated he would appeal.
Tai’s supporters included veteran journalist Ching Cheong, lawmakers James To Kun-sun and Kwok Ka-ki, former legislators Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, Alan Leong Kah-kit and Lee Cheuk-yan and respected surgeon Au Yiu-kai.
Praising Tai’s past contributions in teaching and promoting the rule of law, they said his civil disobedience was driven only by conscience in pursuing genuine universal suffrage and not by greed or personal gain.
“There is a fundamental difference between its nature and that of ordinary criminal offences,” the petition read. “If he is dismissed due to such a controversy, HKU will be seen as bowing to external political pressures and threaten its institutional autonomy.”
Late on Tuesday, representatives of the university’s law students also launched a petition to HKU’s governing council and senate, which have the final say over complaints about teaching staff. They said staff and students should be able to make a case for colleagues or teachers during an inquiry.
The students’ Law Association also urged the decision makers to “carefully consider the background of his conviction”, which was to strive for greater democracy through civil disobedience.
The association said Tai had been devoted to HKU’s law school throughout his life, teaching since 1991. He had also started to organise rule of law workshops for secondary school pupils and members of the public.
It said the university should “not negate associate professor Tai’s past contributions towards legal education solely due to the conviction, as this would result in a tremendous loss to the faculty of law and towards law students as well as the general public”.
The university said it had nothing to add to its previous statement. After Tai’s jailing, it said it respected the court’s decision and would follow up in accordance with the procedures stipulated in the University of Hong Kong Ordinance and related rules and regulations.