Four former student leaders of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) have been jailed for two years each for incitement to wound over a controversial motion they passed to mourn a man who stabbed a police officer before taking his own life in July 2021.

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

HKU students Kinson Cheung, Charles Kwok, Chris Todorovski and Anthony Yung, who were remanded in custody last month, appeared before judge Adriana Noelle Tse Ching for sentencing at District Court on Monday.

Tse said the four defendants had glorified violence and abused their powers as student leaders by using a formal channel – a student union council meeting – to “publish the inciting words.” The meeting, during which the leaders held a moment of silence for the attacker, was also broadcast live on social media channels.

She added that the four students had “outstanding” academic backgrounds and clear records were not mitigating factors given the severity of the offence, she added.

Despite the government condemning the attack, the students had gone on to hold the meeting in “open defiance of the law,” Tse added.

The four were originally charged with advocating terrorism as well as the alternative charge of incitement to wound with intent. Terrorism, an offence under the national security law, could have seen them sentenced to 10 years behind bars if convicted. They were set to plead not guilty and faced an eight-day trial.

HKUSU student leader Chris Todorovski Charles Kwok Yung Chung-hei District Court Wan Chai
(From left to right) Former University of Hong Kong student leaders Yung Chung-hei, Charles Kwok and Chris Todorovski outside the District Court in Wan Chai on September 11, 2023. Photo: Kelly Ho/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, although jail terms meted out by the District Court are capped at seven years.

The four pleaded guilty to incitement to wound with intent in September, and were taken into custody to await sentencing. The terrorism charge was dropped.

Tse took a 35-month sentence as the starting point for each defendant, deducting from it on account of their guilty plea and their age to arrive at two years. The students were between 18 and 21 at the time of the incident.

‘Martyr’ motion

Reading out the facts of the case, Tse said the charge related to statements made at a student union council meeting on July 7, 2021, when the student body passed a resolution to mourn the death of Leung Kin-fai. Six days before, Leung had killed himself shortly after stabbing a police officer outside a mall in Causeway Bay on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s Handover from British to Chinese rule.

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.

Authorities condemned the incident as a “lone-wolf local terrorist act,” which left the officer with a 10-centimetre-deep wound and a lung injury.

The emergency meeting was convened by Cheung, at the time the chair of the union council. He opened the meeting by inviting attendees to observe a moment of silence to remember the “honourable sacrifice” of Leung to Hong Kong.

Kwok, then the union’s president, raised the motion to mourn Leung. He also compared the incident to the death of Marco Leung, a man who unfurled a protest banner before falling from height from Pacific Place mall in Admiralty during the protests and unrest in 2019.

Todorovski seconded the motion, while Yung said Leung had sacrificed himself “for the greater good,” Tse said.

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

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 national security law. The legislation, which criminalises secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference, was imposed by Beijing in June 2020 following months of protests and unrests that began in the summer of 2019 over a controversial extradition bill.

‘Pre-meditated’ move

Explaining her reasons for sentencing, Tse said the resolution was not done in the “spur of the moment” and was pre-meditated, with Cheung sending out an email with an agenda attached to convene the meeting ahead of time.

She added that she disputed a statement made by Todorovski’s defence counsel the defendants had played different roles in the offence.

The University of Hong Kong (HKU). Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
The University of Hong Kong on October 10, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“I disagree that their roles [were] markedly different,” Tse said. “They each had their own role to play, without which the resolution would never have been passed or had the same impact.”

All four defendants spent time in custody after their arrests in August 2021. Cheung, Kwok and Todorovski were denied bail, while Yung was granted bail, but remained in custody after the prosecutors appealed.

The High Court rejected the prosecution’s challenge and granted him bail a week after that. Four months later, in December, the other three students were also allowed out on bail.

All four students continued their university studies after their arrests, Tse added.

When HKFP asked HKU if they supported, or opposed, the verdict on Monday, the university did not respond to emails or Whatsapp messages.

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Hillary Leung is a journalist at Hong Kong Free Press, where she reports on local politics and social issues, and assists with editing. Since joining in late 2021, she has covered the Covid-19 pandemic, political court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial, and challenges faced by minority communities.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hillary completed her undergraduate degree in journalism and sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She worked at TIME Magazine in 2019, where she wrote about Asia and overnight US news before turning her focus to the protests that began that summer. At Coconuts Hong Kong, she covered general news and wrote features, including about a Black Lives Matter march that drew controversy amid the local pro-democracy movement and two sisters who were born to a domestic worker and lived undocumented for 30 years in Hong Kong.