HONG KONG (Reuters) – The University of Hong Kong (HKU) on Tuesday sacked veteran pro-democracy activist Benny Tai from his tenured position as an associate professor of law, a move he called “the end of academic freedom” in the Chinese-ruled city.
Tai was a leading figure in Hong Kong’s 2014 “Umbrella” protests, which paralysed the city for 79 days as demonstrators occupied main roads demanding greater democracy.
He was sentenced to 16 months in prison last year for two public nuisance offences, but released on bail pending an appeal – a conviction that prompted HKU to begin reviewing his position.
Tuesday’s decision by the governing council reversed an earlier decision by the university senate that there were not enough grounds for a dismissal.
“It marks the end of academic freedom in Hong Kong,” Tai said on Facebook. “Academic institutions in Hong Kong cannot protect their members from internal and outside interferences.”
Tai was also singled out by Beijing officials this month for his role in helping organise an unofficial primary vote for the opposition pro-democracy camp to select candidates for elections to the city legislature.
The officials said the vote was illegal and potentially violated a new, sweeping national security law that many fear will erode freedoms in the semi-autonomous city, including those of the media and academia.
In a statement on Tuesday, the Hong Kong Liaison Office, Beijing’s main representation in the city, said Tai’s sacking was “just an act of punishing evil, promoting good and conforming to the people’s will”.
The said Tai’s words and deeds “have severely intensified social conflicts in Hong Kong and poisoned Hong Kong’s political environment”.
Beijing and the Hong Kong government have said the law will not affect rights and freedoms, and that it is needed to plug security loopholes.
HKU said in a statement that its council had resolved a personnel issue” following a “lengthy”, “stringent” and “impartial” process, without naming Tai.
The university could not be reached for comment outside business hours.
(Reporting by Yanni Chow, Carol Mang and Jessie Pang; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Giles Elgood)