Four former student leaders of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) have been remanded in custody while they await sentencing next month. They earlier pleaded guilty to inciting others to wound after expressing sympathy for a man who took his own life after stabbing a police officer in July 2021.

Charles Kwok Chris Todorovski HKU student leaders District Court
Former University of Hong Kong student leaders Charles Kwok (left) and Chris Todorovski outside Hong Kong’s District Court in Wan Chai on September 20, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

District Judge Adriana Noelle Tse Ching revoked the bail of HKU students Kinson Cheung, Charles Kwok, Chris Todorovski and Anthony Yung on Wednesday, after she heard their mitigation pleas in the case concerning statements made at a student union council meeting on July 7, 2021.

On that day, the student body passed a resolution to mourn the death of Leung Kin-fai, who killed himself shortly after knifing a police officer outside a shopping mall in Causeway Bay on July 1, when the city marked 24 years since its return to Chinese rule.

The defendants were said to have praised Leung’s actions and described him as a “martyr,” despite the authorities condemning the incident as a “lone-wolf local terrorist act.” 

The motion was withdrawn within days, after the Hong Kong government and the university issued statements blasting the students for “beautifying blatant violence” and “glorifying violent attacks.” Kwok, then-president of the student union’s executive committee, apologised publicly and said members of the student body would step down.

The group was arrested and charged that August under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Plea bargain

The four defendants originally faced an eight-day trial for allegedly advocating terrorism, for which they could have been sentenced to 10 years behind bars if convicted.

Yung Chung-hei Chris Todorovski HKU student leaders District Court
Former University of Hong Kong student leaders Yung Chung-hei (left) and Chris Todorovski outside Hong Kong’s District Court in Wan Chai on September 20, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

But prosecutors agreed to let the students plead guilty to an alternative charge of incitement to wound with intent, which is punishable by up to life imprisonment. Jail terms meted out by the District Court are capped at seven years.

The judge on Wednesday said it was “incorrect” for the defence to say that they reached a plea bargain with the prosecution for the students to admit to a “lesser charge.” The offence of incitement to wound was in fact more serious, she said, pointing to the maximum penalty.

Hong Kong courts may exercise discretion, and commonly offer sentence reductions of up to one-third off the starting sentence for defendants who entered a guilty plea. The reduction, however, is subject to the timing of the plea and other factors.

HKU student leaders Kinson Cheung Yung Chung-hei District Court
Former HKU Student Union Council chairperson Kinson Cheung hugs Former University of Hong Kong student leader Yung Chung-hei outside Hong Kong’s District Court in Wan Chai on September 20, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Lawyers for the HKU students had tried to convince the court to offer a discount of more than 25 per cent. The judge said Kwok decided to change his plea just before the pre-trial hearing and questioned whether he had shown a “clear and unequivocal intention to plead guilty.”

The plea bargain with the prosecution could have taken place at an earlier time, the judge remarked. She added that the defendants must bear the consequences of their legal strategy, she said.

“It’s about time for someone to learn there are consequences to actions,” she said.

‘Amplified’ mistake

On Wednesday, Senior Counsel Robert Pang, representing law student Cheung, said he was remorseful for his “foolish and irresponsible” actions. The then-chairman of the student council wanted to make it known that “violence should not in any way be condoned,” the lawyer told the court.

“[Cheung] will be trying to make amends for the rest of his life,” Pang said, adding the student had “suffered” throughout the course of the case.

Robert Pang
Senior Counsel Robert Pang outside the Court of Final Appeal on August 9, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

But the judge did not side with the counsel, who tried to argue that university was a place for an individual to learn how to be an adult and that Cheung regretted what he did at the age of 19.

“Mistakes much more minor and not criminal would come back to haunt us for the rest of our lives,” she said.

She also rejected Pang’s argument that the mistakes of the four students had been “amplified.”

“They chose to amplify it by putting the mistake on an international stage,” she said.

The most serious accusation of the offence was mitigated to a large extent by the fact the controversial motion had been rescinded, Pang told the court. But that had a limited effect on pleading for a more lenient sentence, the judge remarked, saying the student body only retracted the resolution following public outcry.

After hearing the mitigation pleas, the judge adjourned the case to October 30 for sentencing and ordered the four defendants to be held in custody in the meantime.

HKU Student Union Council chairperson Kinson Cheung.
HKU Student Union Council chairperson Kinson Cheung. File photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

A women cried in the court room as the four students bid farewell to their family and friends in the public gallery before they were led away by corrections officers.

Phone use

During Wednesday’s hearing, the judge ordered at least two men in the public gallery to hand over their phones to court staff. She said there were notices throughout the court building telling people to turn off their phones.

“What were you doing on your phone?” the judge asked.

According to the Judiciary’s website, court attendees are barred from making or receiving calls during proceedings, but text-based communications – including electronic text communications but excluding voice and image transmissions – are allowed, given that they do not interfere with the administration of justice or cause disturbance to other people.

“The reasonable use of text-based communications in court without interfering with the proper administration of justice and without disturbing others in the courtroom is regarded as legitimate and permissible in promoting open justice,” the Judiciary said.

The phones were returned to the individuals after the hearing. They told HKFP that the court staff had not taken their personal details.

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure. The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

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Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.