Ten of the 12 Hong Kong people detained by China at sea are set to go on trial in the mainland city of Shenzhen on Monday, supporters said, as campaigners called for fair hearings and the United States called for the group’s “immediate release”.
The 12 were intercepted by the Chinese coastguard on August 23 on a speedboat believed to be bound for Taiwan.
The case has attracted great interest in Hong Kong and abroad as a rare instance of mainland Chinese authorities arresting people trying to leave the semi-autonomous city, where democracy activists last year led enormous protests against Beijing’s rule.
Prior to their departure, all were facing charges in Hong Kong linked to the anti-government protests, including rioting and violation of a national security law that Beijing imposed on the city in June, authorities in Hong Kong have said.
Detainees Quinn Moon and Tang Kai-yin have been charged with “organising other persons to secretly cross the border” and face up to seven years’ imprisonment. The 10 others, two of whom were under 18 at the time of their arrest, have been charged with “secretly crossing the border” and face up to a year in jail.
Chinese authorities said the two underage suspects will undergo private hearings on a separate date.
Families of the accused have called for the hearing in the Shenzhen court to be broadcast live, after they were unable to attend due to the short notice for the trial and COVID-19 requirements.
They were only notified of the trial date on Friday, while their lawyers have been barred from meeting the detainees.
Authorities instead have appointed state-approved legal representation.
‘Remote’ chance of fair trial
In a statement ahead of Monday’s trial, Amnesty International called for fair and public hearings.
“We fear that the chance of these young Hongkongers getting a fair trial in China is remote given they have so far been deprived of their basic rights, including the right to defend themselves through legal representation of their own choosing,” said Amnesty’s Hong Kong Programme Manager Lam Cho Ming.
“Their families have repeatedly been denied direct access to them, and several mainland lawyers who have attempted to represent them at the families’ request have been threatened by the Chinese authorities to force them to drop the case.”
A spokesperson at the US consulate-general in Guangzhou called for their “immediate release” on Monday.
“Their so-called ‘crime’ was to flee tyranny,” the spokesperson told the AFP news agency. “Communist China will stop at nothing to prevent its people from seeking freedom elsewhere.”
The families, in a joint letter over the weekend, said they “strongly condemn” the authorities’ decision to hold the trial in “de facto secret” at Yantian District People’s Court.
“We urge governments to send embassy personnel to the hearing to guarantee a proper and fair trial by the courts in Shenzhen,” they said.
The Hong Kong government has said the defendants must face justice on the mainland before returning to Hong Kong, where they are expected to be further investigated for the alleged protest-related crimes.
China has a history of putting dissidents on trial around the Christmas and New Year period to avoid Western scrutiny.
“Obviously (the Chinese authorities) are rushing during the Christmas period so as to minimise international backlash,” Beatrice Li, sister of detainee Andy Li, told the Reuters news agency on Friday.
Unlike in Hong Kong, where the justice system is independent and based on common law, mainland Chinese courts are loyal to the Communist Party and do not challenge the party’s accusations. Conviction rates are close to 100 percent.
The former British colony of Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with a guarantee of freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland under a “one country, two systems” formula agreed to by Beijing and London.
Pro-democracy protesters believe those freedoms are being eroded by Beijing, especially with the imposition of the national security law.
China denies curbing rights and freedoms and says the legislation was needed to ensure law and order.