A Chinese court on Wednesday sentenced ten Hong Kong fugitives to up to three years in prison, four months after they were caught in Chinese waters while attempting to flee to Taiwan.
A number of Hong Kong activists wanted for crimes linked to the 2019 anti-government unrest have fled to the self-ruled island, where a democratically-elected government has promised to provide support for exiled Hongkongers.
The 12 activists, aged between 16 and 33, face charges at home including rioting and assaulting police officers during the protests. While trying to travel to Taiwan on a boat in late August, they were caught by Chinese coast guard and detained in the southern mainland city of Shenzhen.
Two of the activists, accused of organizing the trip, were given the longest sentences of three and two years in prison. Eight others who were accused of illegal border crossing were sentenced to seven months. The ten were fined between 10,000 and 20,000 yuan ($1,500 and $3,000).
The court did not charge two other fugitives, who were juveniles at the time of their arrest, and transferred them to police custody back in Hong Kong.
To supporters of the 2019 protests, the trial and imprisonment of the activists in mainland China is a nightmare come true. The anti-government movement in Hong Kong was fueled by mistrust of Beijing and opposition to a plan to allow extraditions of suspects across the border to mainland China, where courts are ultimately beholden to the ruling Communist Party.
Protesters said the extradition bill, which was withdrawn under popular pressure, could subject Hongkongers to political trials and erode the considerable autonomy that Beijing promised the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
The ten adults stood trial at the Yantian District People’s Court on December 28, according to a court statement. The court said the hearing was open to the public, but diplomats and foreign journalists were blocked from attending.
Family members, notified about the trial only three days in advance, were not able to attend, according to an advocacy group that represents the families. People from Hong Kong need to be quarantined for two weeks when they travel to mainland China.
In a statement, the court said the two activists organized the escape to Taiwan according to arrangements made by “other people.”
The court said the ten received lenient sentences because they committed the crimes under others’ guidance and had pleaded guilty. In mainland China, the maximum sentence for organizing an illicit border crossing is seven years, unless it involves “serious circumstances” such as causing injuries.
While more than 10,000 people have been arrested in Hong Kong for offences related to the 2019 unrest, the fate of the 12 people detained in the mainland have drawn outsized attention in the city and abroad.
Their supporters have expressed sympathy with their detention, while their critics have said they deserved the punishment.
The social media campaign #SAVE12HKYOUTHS calling for their release were joined by overseas politicians and activists like Greta Thunberg.
In a statement issued before the trial, the US State Department said the activists were only trying to “flee tyranny” and should be released immediately. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson said Washington’s comments “disregarded facts and confounded right and wrong.”
Growing distrust of Beijing, including the courts it ultimately controls, was a major factor fueling the widespread discontent that underpinned the 2019 anti-government movement in Hong Kong.
To the protesters, the lack of information from the 12 people over the past four months demonstrated the Chinese law enforcement’s disregard for individual rights.
The families of the activists were never allowed to speak to the activists. Lawyers hired by the families said they were pressured to drop the cases and give way to counsels assigned by the authorities.
Several family members received hand-written letters from the activists in mid-November, but the content raised suspicions – the activists all used similar wording in saying that they were eating and sleeping well in the detention center, according to the advocacy group, which published the letters for the families.
The sentencing capped off a gloomy year for political activism in Hong Kong. Prominent activists including Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow were sentenced earlier this month to up to 13.5 months in prison over their roles in the protests last year. The Beijing-backed city government has also banned protests and cancelled elections on public health grounds, and moved to weaken the political opposition.
In June, a powerful new national security law that criminalizes a broad range of dissent further cast a dark cloud over the future of the city’s pro-democracy movement.
Citing the law, the Hong Kong authorities have accused the media mogul Jimmy Lai, an outspoken critic of Beijing, of endangering national security by colluding with a foreign government. Lai, 72, faces the maximum punishment of life in prison.
Currently released on bail, Lai is scheduled to attend a hearing at the city’s top court on Thursday that, if ruled in the government’s favor, could return him to detention in jail until his trial begins on April 16, 2021.
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