Ten Hong Kong protesters who were captured at sea by Chinese officials while attempting to flee the city were sentenced to up to three years in jail in mainland China in a case that has sparked international concern over Beijing’s crackdown on activists in the territory.
The group was convicted by a court in Shenzhen of violating border restrictions and sentenced for “organising other persons to secretly cross the border” and “secretly crossing the border”. They were arrested by the Chinese coast guard in August while attempting to reach Taiwan by speedboat.
The ten, who were aged between 18 and 33 at the time of the arrest, were also fined amounts ranging from Rmb10,000 to Rmb20,000 ($1,533-3,066).
Two other members of the group, who were aged 16 and 17 at the time of the arrest, were not put on trial and have been sent back to Hong Kong after confessing, Shenzhen police said in a separate statement.
The individuals faced a range of charges in Hong Kong linked to their involvement in last year’s anti-government protests, including colluding with foreign forces, rioting and arson. They tried to escape to avoid prosecution amid wider concerns about the city’s legal system after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the semi-autonomous territory in June.
The detainees have not been allowed to communicate freely with their families or be represented by lawyers chosen by their relatives. Instead, they were assigned government-appointed legal representatives.
The judgment was made in a closed hearing on Monday in Shenzhen, where diplomatic officials from countries including the US, Canada and the UK were denied access to the court, according to local media. Chinese state media said the defendants had pleaded guilty, although it is unclear if they denied the charges before being detained.
The case has drawn international condemnation, with Dominic Raab, UK foreign secretary, saying Britain was “deeply concerned” that the “Shenzhen 12 were tried in secret” in a statement on Monday.
More than 150 parliamentarians from 18 countries have also called on Carrie Lam, Hong Kong chief executive, to intercede in the case, while the US has demanded the activists’ immediate release.
“Their so-called ‘crime’ was to flee tyranny. Communist China today is turning Hong Kong into the East Berlin of yesteryear, actively preventing its own people from seeking freedom elsewhere,” Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, wrote on Twitter this month.
The Hong Kong government hit back, saying in a statement: “These remarks which had totally disregarded the facts and confused about what was right and wrong.”
The Shenzhen Yantian People’s Court wrote in a post on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform, that the sentence was “lenient” because members of the group expressed regret and were deemed “accessories” to a plan by an unspecified organisation.
But the group’s lawyers said in a joint statement that the act of buying or piloting a boat to secretly cross the border should not amount to the crime of “organising” an illegal crossing. Even if it did, they added, the sentence was excessively harsh.
Family members of the detainees condemned the authorities for giving just three days’ notice of the hearing dates. “I think their way of handling this is very inhumane,” said the wife of Wong Wai-yin, one of the detainees, adding that was impossible to travel to Shenzhen because of coronavirus restrictions.
Twelve Hong Kongers Concern Group, a campaigning organisation that has been assisting the families of the detainees, said: “The basic rights of the 12 Hongkongers have already been deprived by the Chinese authorities. The unfair court proceedings is evidence of an obvious, draconian political persecution.”