For Hong Kong Protesters Caught at Sea, Trial in China Is Possible

HONG KONG – The 12 protesters who fled Hong Kong by speedboat last month were not allowed to call their families. They were denied bail and held in a Chinese detention center without charge. They were not allowed to meet lawyers appointed by their relatives.

Soon they will be prosecuted for their escape and are expected to do so in the dismal judiciary of the mainland.

In Hong Kong, they have become a powerful reminder of the deep-seated fear that sparked large demonstrations last year and became the greatest challenge to Communist Party’s rule in decades. The protests targeted a proposed extradition law that would have put residents of the city on trial on the mainland, where the courts are controlled by the party.

“This is what we feared when we protested the extradition law that people from Hong Kong could be sent to China under a completely different system known for not following its own laws,” said Beatrice Li, Andy Li’s sister, an activist who was one of the people on the boat.

Concerns about Beijing’s heightened influence over Hong Kong have only increased since the Communist Party imposed a comprehensive national security law on the territory in June to punish vaguely defined political crimes such as subversion. Mr. Li was arrested under the new law in August and released on bail.

Up to 200 Hong Kong protesters are believed to have fled to Taiwan last year, where the activists are believed to have been led. Going there by sea has become increasingly risky and smugglers who once traveled the route are no longer willing to take part. Some members of the group – 11 men and one woman – had learned to pilot a boat themselves, according to two people who had heard, but details of their attempt to escape were not directly involved.

Another protester, Liu Tsz-man, a 17-year-old who was arrested by Hong Kong police for arson last year, never told his family that he intended to flee. But in retrospect there were signs.

A few days before he went missing, Mr. Liu was an unusually good son, according to his brother. The teenager had gone out early in the morning to wait in line at a dim sum breakfast spot, a task normally her father’s job. He also went out of his way to buy cigarettes for his father. Then suddenly he was nowhere to be found.

The group set out from Po Toi O, a fishing village in a rural part of the northeastern part of the territory, early August 23, the Hong Kong government said in a statement on Saturday describing information from mainland police. The Chinese Coast Guard stopped the boat around 9 a.m., about 45 miles southeast of Hong Kong Island.

“When the news went on, they had no names, only that people had been arrested,” Mr. Liu’s 23-year-old brother Jason Liu said in an interview. “Then the police showed up at our door.”

The 12 are currently being held in a detention center located a 15-minute walk from the mainland Hong Kong border in Yantian, a district in Shenzhen, China.

According to the Hong Kong government, they will be officially arrested by prosecutors in Shenzhen in the coming days for illegally crossing the border. The immigration offense carries a maximum penalty of up to one year in prison or seven years if they are found to have organized such an effort. An official from the Chinese Foreign Ministry has described the detainees as separatists, highlighting the political perspective with which the authorities are viewing the case.

It is not uncommon for detainees on the mainland to be held for long periods without bail or access to lawyers and relatives, especially in politically sensitive cases. In Hong Kong, the police generally cannot detain a person for more than 48 hours without charge, and detainees have the right to choose their lawyers.

Liang Xiaojun, a human rights attorney in China hired by Mr. Li’s relatives to represent him, said he and three other lawyers selected by the inmates’ families learned from the police at the Yantian Detention Center their clients had already chosen their lawyers. Police in China sometimes force defendants to accept state-selected lawyers to prevent lawyers from building solid defense in court.

“I am disappointed with the current situation,” said Mr. Liang in an interview.

Mr. Li, 30, a computer programmer who enjoys playing video games and reading Japanese graphic novels, joined the protest movement last year. He volunteered for the Fight For Freedom group, Stand With Hong Kong, which organized international campaigns in support of the movement. He became better known while helping organize a group of overseas election observers for the Hong Kong local elections in November.

Mr. Li was arrested last month on suspicion of being “in consultation with a foreign country or with outside elements” under the national security law. He is also charged with possession of illegal ammunition, which appears to be related to the collection of tear gas cartridges, rubber bullets and other materials used by police.

Pro-democracy lawmakers and activists have pressured Hong Kong officials to urge the Chinese government to return the detainees. Some activists have tried to organize protests in support of the 12 on Thursday, China’s national day.

On Tuesday, Beijing’s Hong Kong Liaison Office said the demands for their release were “absurd” and called the detainees’ supporters “black hands behind the Hong Kong disasters.”

Hong Kong authorities have emphasized that most of the 12 detainees faced serious charges related to explosives, arson, riot, police abuse and gun possession. City leader Carrie Lam said last week the group must be tried in the mainland before the Hong Kong government helps with their repatriation.

However, their relatives are concerned about abuses on the mainland, where forced confessions and other violations are common.

“There are so many stories of torture,” said Ms. Li, Andy Li’s sister, citing cases of Hong Kong people detained in China, including Simon Cheng, a former British consular officer, who said Chinese security forces had him hung up in a splayed pose and deprived him of sleep. “All of your accounts of what happened inside your detention are basically my fear at the moment.”

The secrecy surrounding the detentions adds to concerns that the wider fight against the democracy movement this year will fundamentally transform the city’s outdoor political culture.

Weeks after the security law was passed, authorities postponed parliamentary elections for a year and raised concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. However, opposition lawmakers accused the government of trying to avoid an escape of establishment candidates like in last November’s elections and briefly discussed the resignation in protest. This week at least 15 of them said they would say in the legislature while three others decided to leave.

The erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy has become a major issue in the downward spiral in China-United States relations. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has expressed concern about the detention of the demonstrators on the boat and urged the authorities to ensure due process for the group he described as “Hong Kong democracy activists”.

Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, responded with a tweet that the 12 were “not democratic activists, but elements trying to separate Hong Kong from China”.

Her testimony angered many family members, who replied that their relatives were not separatists and that regardless of their political beliefs, they deserve a fair trial.

“As long as your voice is different from the government, they will say we are for independence,” said Yin Chan, mother of Li Tsz-yin, a 30-year-old surveyor who was on the boat. “We are not asking for independence. We want a fair, just society. “

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