Former legal scholar and activist Benny Tai is expected to plead guilty to four charges of illegal election spending by placing advertisements in local newspapers in the run-up to the 2016 legislative polls.

The 57-year-old pro-democracy figure, who taught at the law faculty of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) before being sacked, is set to admit the charges under the Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance, according to local media citing prosecutors and defence lawyers in the District Court on Tuesday. The case was adjourned to April 25 next year for Tai to make a formal plea.

Occupy nine sentencing
Benny Tai. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

The former HKU academic was charged by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in July alongside psychologist Ip Kim-Ching and Sek Sau-ching. They stand accused of incurring over HK$253,000 in election expenses by placing three newspaper advertisements in Ming Pao, and three in the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper in September 2016, even though they were not candidates or agents.

Tai, who has been detained for more than eight months pending a separate trial under the national security law, could face up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of HK$200,000 for each of the four election-related charges he is facing. Local media reported that Ip and Sek may be given a binding-over order if they accept the prosecution’s case.

The advertisements in question were linked to Tai’s tactical voting strategy known as “ThunderGo,” which aimed to coordinate votes to help pan-democratic candidates secure more than half of the seats in the Legislative Council (LegCo).

2016 legco legislative elections candidates leaflets advertising
Campaign fliers of the 2016 Legislative Council election. Photo: HKFP.

Hong Kong drastically changed its electoral system in May under a Beijing-mandated overhaul designed to ensure only “patriots” rule the city. It introduced national security checks on candidates and reduced the ratio of directly elected legislative seats to around 22 per cent from 50 per cent previously.

Next month’s LegCo polls lack candidates from traditional pro-democracy parties, as most opposition figures remain behind bars, have fled the city, have quit politics or have been barred from running.

Tai was the leader of the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and was fired from HKU for alleged misconduct in July last year. He said at the time that the move marked “the end of academic freedom in Hong Kong,” while the China Liaison Office in the city hailed the decision as “poetic justice.”

He is also among 47 pro-democracy figures charged with conspiracy to commit subversion in connection with an unofficial legislative primary election held in July last year. The case is set to be heard in the High Court, where the defendants may face life imprisonment if convicted.

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.