HONG KONG – A group of Hong Kong protesters arrested by Chinese authorities while fleeing the city by speedboat were sentenced on Wednesday to seven months to three years in prison by a mainland court in the Chinese Communist Party’s latest offensive against Pros . Democracy activists.
The fall of the 12 demonstrators caught by the Chinese Coast Guard in August while attempting to seek refuge in Taiwan was closely watched by Hong Kong’s beleaguered opposition movement. For many in the movement, the experiences of the 12, who were detained on the mainland for months without charge and then tried out in public, embodied the worst of their fears about the future of Hong Kong under tighter central government control.
It was the nightmare prospect of being subject to the mainland’s opaque criminal justice system that sparked protests against the government last year. This nightmare became a reality for the arrested demonstrators.
Eight of them were sentenced to seven months in prison for illegally crossing the border. Two other people, Tang Kai-yin, 31, and Quinn Moon, 33, who were charged with the more serious crime involved in organizing the escape attempt, were given three and two years, respectively. The protesters were also fined between 10,000 and 20,000 yuan, about $ 1,500 to $ 3,000.
Two other defendants, teenagers at the time of their arrest, pleaded guilty to a closed hearing and were not charged, according to a statement by the Shenzhen Prosecutor on Wednesday. The two youths were returned to Hong Kong police custody on Wednesday.
The 12 demonstrators who were caught in mainland waters, according to prosecutors, were not extradited. However, her imprisonment and secret conviction in the Yantian District People’s Court in the mainland city of Shenzhen highlighted the differences between Hong Kong’s independent judicial system and the mainland courts, which are controlled by the Communist Party and are often used to silence dissidents.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, When he returned to China in 1997, he was promised 50 years of relative autonomy. In recent years, however, the Chinese government has stepped up its influence – notably through a comprehensive new national security law passed in June. The law, which provides harsh penalties for vaguely defined acts against the government, is seen by many as an acceleration of China’s total control of the city.
The protesters, most of whom had previously been arrested in Hong Kong and trying to avoid trial, were caught about 45 miles southeast of Hong Kong Island after leaving the northeast of the territory in the early hours of August 23.
During their three months in detention, protesters were denied access to lawyers chosen by their relatives, according to a group representing family members. They were also charged with crimes just this month; In the mainland, defendants are routinely detained for long distances without being charged.
Family members in Hong Kong said no relatives were able to attend the trial that began Monday. The family members were informed of the trial date just three days in advance. The Shenzhen court said in a statement that some nameless relatives attended.
The process was not open to observers either, despite inquiries from the family and some foreign diplomats. (Shenzhen officials reportedly said the courtroom was full.)
The sentences demonstrated “the dangers facing anyone brought to justice under the Chinese criminal system,” said Yamini Mishra, director of Amnesty International for the Asia-Pacific region. “This group of young Hong Kong residents will face torture and other ill-treatment in Chinese prisons.”
According to a verdict issued by the Shenzhen Court, the 10 protesters pleaded guilty and “truthfully confessed to the facts of the crime.” The defendants received relatively light sentences, among other things because Mr. Tang and Ms. Moon organized the escape on the orders of other nameless persons.
The report said that Mr. Tang bought the boat used to try to escape and that he and Ms. Moon then contacted the other protesters. They left Po Toi O, a fishing village in a rural part of northeast Hong Kong, and were arrested around 8 a.m. that same day.
Hong Kong police said Wednesday that the two teenagers returned from Shenzhen would be quarantined for 14 days and then tried in Hong Kong to face earlier charges related to the protests. Both have missed hearings and bailed because of the attempt to escape, police said, and could face additional charges.
Hundreds of Hong Kongers have sought refuge in Taiwan in the past few months, and many others have moved or are preparing to move overseas elsewhere. Foreign governments that have criticized China’s crackdown on Hong Kong have announced that they will offer routes to citizenship or asylum.
Officials from these governments condemned the arrest and trial of the ten protesters convicted on Wednesday. A spokesman for the US embassy in China called for the activists’ “immediate release” and added in a statement Monday that “their so-called” crime “was to flee tyranny.”
A spokesman for the European Union said the defendants’ rights to a fair trial had “not been respected”. And Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary, said he was “deeply concerned” about the trial.
In response to the allegations, Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the United States “should immediately stop interfering in China’s internal affairs and judicial sovereignty.”