A Hong Kong court has sentenced pro-democracy activist and former law scholar Benny Tai to 10 months in prison over illegal election spending, after he placed adverts in local newspapers ahead of the 2016 Legislative Council election.

The 57-year-old appeared in front of Judge Anthony Kwok at District Court on Tuesday afternoon. He pleaded guilty to four charges last month. The charges against two other co-defendants – Ip Kim-ching and Sek Sau-ching – were conditionally dropped.

Benny Tai
Benny Tai in a demonstration held on January 1, 2019. Photo: Etan Liam, via Flickr.

The trio were accused of incurring over HK$253,000 in election expenses by placing three advertisements in Ming Pao, and three in the now-defunct Apple Daily in September 2016, though they were not election candidates or agents.

The ads 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 legislature.

Kwok ruled that the starting point of the sentence was 18 months in prison due to the scale of Tai’s campaign, before reducing it to 10 months.

“[The project] may be based on the defendant’s own ideas of democracy and justice. But no matter how noble his ideals are, he should only adopt legal means to achieve them,” Kwok said.

‘Ideas of democracy and justice’

During mitigation, Tai’s lawyer suggested a starting point of six months in prison, with reference to similar cases.

However, Kwok said the sentencing in previous cases were “not applicable,” as “the level of planning, the number of candidates affected and the amount of election expenditure incurred was unparalleled.”

District Court
District Court. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The sentence was reduced by a third as Tai pleaded guilty. An additional two months were deducted because Kwok ruled that the five-year delay to Tai’s prosecution was not justified.

The prosecution said that Tai’s charges were brought five years after the offences occurred largely because they wanted to wait for the results from the public consultation regarding relaxing election spending rules in 2017. They also said they needed time to verify the evidence gathered from online sources.

But Kwok ruled that the government’s public consultation “had no direct relation” to Tai’s case as the consultation document made no suggestion to exempt election expenses for advertising.

Kwok said that many recent cases related to the 2019 protests also involved a large amount of evidence from the internet or media reports, but the police or the Department of Justice “typically did not need a lot of time to verify or identify the sources and carry out prosecutions.” The judge ruled that the prosecution’s delay was “unreasonable and unacceptable.”

Kwok said he took into account the fact that the six advertisements in question did not directly promote any particular candidate, but promoted the ThunderGo project and asked voters to coordinate their ballots.

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

Kwok also said that Tai had openly explained his project multiple times and the cost of the advertisements was also made public, therefore he was not concealing any particulars of the campaign.

Kwok added that Tai had no criminal record when the election expenses were incurred, and the offence was not linked to his personal interest.

The judge said the above points had “to some extent reduce the level of severity” of the sentence.

‘Politically motivated attack’

Responding to Tai’s 10-month sentence, human rights NGO Amnesty International said: “The jail term handed today to fired Hong Kong scholar Benny Tai is another politically motivated attack based on his pro-democracy activism. Hong Kong authorities and universities must stop silencing academics critical of the government.”

Tai was a 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 2020. He has been remanded in custody awaiting trial since last March.

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.