Ten Hong Kongers who attempted to flee the city by speedboat to Taiwan have been jailed in China for up to three years for organizing and taking part in an illegal border crossing.
The activists – most of whom were on bail or facing charges in Hong Kong related to last year’s anti-government protests – were caught by the Chinese coast guard in August as they attempted to escape to the self-governing island of Taiwan, about 700 kilometers (440 miles) away.
Two convicted of organizing the illegal border crossing were sentenced to two and three years in prison, respectively. The other eight were convicted of taking part in the border crossing and all received seven-month sentences. Yantian People’s Court said all 10 pleaded guilty. All the accused also received fines ranging from $1,500 to $3,000.
Earlier Wednesday, China handed two suspects aged under 18 who were also on the boat to Hong Kong police. Authorities in the southern city of Shenzhen said they had confessed to crossing the border illegally but had not been charged.
All 12 were detained for more than 100 days before this week’s trial in Shenzhen, as their parents and politicians in Hong Kong, the United States and the United Kingdom pressured for their release. A group representing the families of the accused said their loved ones were abused in Chinese custody and denied access to their lawyers.
Police and prosecutors in Shenzhen have previously denied accusations of ill treatment and claimed the 12 had access to legal advice, though the practice in mainland China of denying defendants their lawyer of choice by appointing a government-picked counsel has been well documented in the past.
On Monday, a US State Department spokeswoman urged Beijing to release the 12 and allow them to leave the country, adding their “so-called ‘crime’ was to flee tyranny.”
“The treatment by PRC authorities of these 12 individuals, some of whom are underage, has been appalling,” the spokeswoman said. “Beijing authorities continue their campaign to stamp out the remaining rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong, falsely equating their system of rule by party decree with the rule of law.”
The fate of the 12 activists has attracted considerable attention both in Hong Kong and overseas, emblematic of the city’s worsening political freedoms and climate since the passage earlier this year of a new national security law. The law – imposed on the city by Beijing, bypassing Hong Kong’s semi-democratic legislature – criminalized secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces, and has already had a major chilling effect on politics and debate.
Numerous high-profile activists, including former lawmakers Nathan Law, Ted Hui and Baggio Leung, have all fled the city for exile overseas, while many other protesters have also left, fearing arrest in connection with the anti-government unrest that rocked Hong Kong for much of 2019.
On Tuesday, Tony Chung, a onetime Hong Kong independence activist who is also facing charges under the national security law, was sentenced to four months in prison for unlawful assembly and desecrating the national flag in connection with protests last year.
Chung had reportedly attempted to flee the city in October by seeking asylum at the US Consulate, but was turned away.
Avenues of escape have grown continually tighter this year, exacerbated by closures and lockdowns around the world as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. What had been a viable, albeit risky, sea route to Taiwan was closed off once the Chinese coast guard made clear they were monitoring waters around the city.
Some commentators have speculated the 12 activists were permitted to leave so they could be publicly detained and put on trial as a lesson to others. In October, open source flight data revealed a government plane was monitoring the area when the activists left Hong Kong and then appeared to track their route.
Carrie Lam, the city’s Beijing-appointed chief executive, has refuted any suggestion that the Hong Kong government was aware of or involved in the case prior to the 12 being arrested.
The fugitives had “chosen to flee, and in the course of fleeing, they entered another jurisdiction and have committed a crime of illegally entering another place,” she said in October. “They have to face the legal consequences in that jurisdiction. It is as simple and straightforward as that.”
The potential to face prosecution in China was a major source of opposition to a proposed extradition bill that kicked off protests last year, and the fate of the 12 seems to have borne out many of the concerns felt in Hong Kong. The activists were allegedly denied access to proper legal representation and scant information was offered about their condition.
Chinese courts – along with prosecutors and police – are overseen by the Chinese Communist Party’s powerful Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission and its local branches.
In a statement, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director Yamini Mishra said the sentences “meted out after an unfair trial lay bare the dangers faced by anybody who finds themselves tried under the Chinese criminal system.”
“The Chinese authorities have shown the world once again that political activists will not receive a fair trial,” she added.