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Hong Kong boat activists: China jails group for up to three years


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image captionSupporters in Taiwan have rallied for the release of the 12 Hong Kongers detained in China

Ten Hong Kong activists arrested at sea as they tried to flee to Taiwan by speedboat have been jailed by China for between seven months and three years.

Two minors in the group have been returned to Hong Kong.

The activists were caught in August as they tried to escape after a harsh new security law was introduced by Beijing in June.

The case of the so-called Hong Kong 12 has drawn global attention and concern about the detainees’ treatment.

The Shenzhen Yantian District People’s court sentenced Tang Kai-yin, 31, and Quinn Moon, 33, to three years and two years in jail, respectively, for organising an illegal border crossing, a statement said.

The remaining eight activists were sentenced to a “lighter punishment” of seven months in prison for illegally crossing the border, it added.

The case has triggered widespread criticism at a time of growing fears about the semi-autonomous territory’s evaporating freedoms.

The activists had been held virtually incommunicado since they were taken into custody in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, with no access to their families or the lawyers they had hired.

After sentencing, rights group Amnesty International said the group was “at risk of torture”.

“These sentences meted out after an unfair trial lay bare the dangers faced by anybody who finds themselves tried under the Chinese criminal system,” Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director Yamini Mishra said in a statement.

What led to their arrests?

The 12 Hong Kongers – aged 16 to 33 at the time of their detention – were intercepted at sea by the Chinese coastguard on the morning of 23 August, just 40 miles (70km) south-east of Hong Kong.

Most of those on board were already facing charges linked to the huge pro-democracy protests that swept the former British colony last year. That meant they could not leave the territory by regular means.

media captionThe families of 12 Hong Kong activists captured at sea by China look for answers

At least one of the activists was being investigated under the controversial national security law.

Since late last year, Taiwan has emerged as a sanctuary for Hong Kong activists escaping a growing crackdown on protesters.

The case of the 12 detainees has highlighted the growing struggle for democracy activists in Hong Kong, which was once a key destination for refugees fleeing persecution.

What happened next?

For months after their arrests the activists were held in detention without charge in Shenzhen.

A few weeks ago Chinese authorities finally charged 10 of the group: eight were accused of illegally crossing the border, which carries up to two years in jail, while two faced the more serious charge of organising the crossing, punishable by up to seven years.

The defendants went on trial on Monday. The hearing was closed to foreign reporters and diplomats – as many are in China – but the court said in a statement that both prosecution and defence lawyers spoke.

On Wednesday, Chinese authorities said the 10 convicted activists had pleaded guilty while the two minors had admitted wrongdoing.

Lawyers for the activists said the eight who received the lesser jail terms should be able to return home on 24 March allowing for time in custody already served.

They also said the sentences were too harsh and that the allegation of organising a border crossing was not substantiated, according to AFP news agency.

What have the families said?

Relatives have expressed their fears for the activists in China’s notoriously opaque judicial system.

“I think whether the Chinese government jails them for one day or seven months, every day they are jailed it is wrong,” said the father of one of the defendants, whose surname is Cheng, after sentencing.

The mother of another of the detainees, surnamed Wong, said: “We hope the Chinese government can notify as soon as possible specific arrangements about visits, such as when we can visit, how long each visit can last and whether we can bring clothes and food for them.”

image copyrightAFP

image captionRelatives held an emotional news conference urging the release of the 12 in September

“We have to remember that they were locked up in China, cut off from the world, their families and lawyers of their choosing for four months before attending a mock trial where only CCP [Chinese Communist Party] approved players were allowed in,” said Beatrice Li, the sister of Andy Li, one of the jailed activists, according to Reuters news agency on Wednesday.

The Chinese lawyers some of the families had hired were barred from seeing their clients as authorities stepped in to appoint state-approved counsel. They were only notified of the trial date, the families said, three days before the hearing.

Over the weekend they had published an open letter to the international community, appealing for its help to “safeguard the legal rights” of the detained 12.

What has the wider reaction been?

The high-profile case has been closely watched in Hong Kong and abroad as a rare instance of Chinese authorities arresting people trying to leave the territory, at a time of mounting concerns about its eroding autonomy.

Supporters of the Hong Kong 12 have rallied in at least a dozen cities around the world – from Taipei and New York to Adelaide and Vancouver.

Hours before the trial on Monday the US embassy in China urged the “immediate release” of the activists.

“Their so-called ‘crime’ was to flee tyranny,” a US embassy spokesperson told AFP. “Communist China will stop at nothing to prevent its people from seeking freedom elsewhere.”

The Chinese ministry of foreign affairs responded, calling on the US to “immediately stop interfering in China’s internal affairs through the Hong Kong issue”.

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