Twelve young Hong Kong activists who fled the embattled city by speedboat and were captured at sea will now face trial in China, as “shocked” relatives and loved ones pleaded for their safe return.
Aged between 17 and 33, the group that has come to be known as the ‘Hong Kong 12’ was caught on August 23 and held in Shenzhen city - an hour away from Hong Kong. They were attempting to reach Taiwan in hopes of a better future as China continues a sweeping crackdown on pro-democracy activists.
Their fate was sealed Wednesday evening - a day before China’s National Day. Local authorities confirmed the official arrest, paving the way for a trial in mainland China’s secretive courts. They have also had no access to family or their own independent lawyers.
“We are shocked and concerned by the outcome,” the father of detainee Cheng Tsz-ho told Reuters before breaking into tears.
“I just want to know if my son is okay.”
Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Andy Li is also one of those facing trial. Li had been arrested earlier in August under the new controversial national security act and released on bail. A young female activist named Quinn Moon, said to be diagnosed with depression, was also on the boat.
Their families unanimously rejected court-appointed lawyers in Shenzhen, arguing instead for independent legal representation. Global observers said their trials would be “a farce” in China, where courts do not have a reputation for impartiality.
Arrests have spiked in Hong Kong following the official implementation of the controversial law that bans all forms of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign countries and carries a harsh maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Numerous members of the city’s vocal pro-democracy movement have been detained in recent weeks, including outspoken Apple Daily media mogul Jimmy Lai, law professor Benny Tai as well as prominent young activists Agnes Chow and Joshua Wong.
Wong, who like many others has been actively advocating for the group’s safety, previously told VICE News that Hong Kongers were now living “the worst possible scenario” under the national security law.
“It’s a nightmare situation for the 12 Hong Kong activists who have been detained in mainland China, we need to be paying more attention to their situation because it’s at an advanced stage,” Wong said in September.
Rights groups called on mainland authorities in Beijing to release the 12 detainees.
“The group has been held incommunicado in Shenzhen’s Yantian Detention Center since August 23, 2020,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement, pointing out that one of the detainees was 17 and a minor.
The group’s senior China researcher Maya Wang said the rule of law should be respected. “People in Hong Kong and abroad are watching how the Chinese government deals with these Hong Kong cases,” Wang said.
“The Chinese government needs to show the world it can uphold its own laws and international obligations.”
U.S. security of state Mike Pompeo also sparred with Beijing over claims that the group had “illegally crossed border waters” and were attempting to “separate” Hong Kong from mainland China.
“I question the Hong Kong government’s stated commitment to protecting the rights of residents,” Pompeo said, calling on the Chinese authorities “to ensure due process”.