Hong Kongers Captured at Sea Jailed on Mainland for Up to Three Years

A court in Shenzhen has handed prison sentences to ten Hong Kongers who were caught attempting to flee Hong Kong for Taiwan by boat in August 2020. Two others, who are underaged, were repatriated to Hong Kong on Wednesday, where they face separate charges of arson and failing to surrender to custody. South China Morning Post’s Tony Cheung, Natalie Wong, Thomas Shum, and Celia Chen reported on the details of the sentencing:

Tang Kai-yin and Quinn Moon, the only woman in the group, were convicted of organising the illegal crossing of the border by all 10, while the other eight were found guilty of doing so, according to an announcement by the Yantian ’s Court.

Tang was sentenced to three years in jail, and fined 20,000 yuan (US$3,000), while Quinn was sentenced to two years and fined 15,000 yuan.

The other eight were jailed for seven months and ordered to pay a penalty of 10,000 yuan.

[…] The court said Tang and Quinn were convicted of organising the illegal crossing as their act “involved many people”, while the others had breached border management laws by illegally crossing as a group under “serious circumstances”. [Source]

The sentencing comes after months of detention, during which the 12 were denied visits from family members, and were not allowed to choose their own lawyers. On the day of the trial, family members and Western diplomats were refused access to the hearing. Human rights groups and Western governments have criticized the opacity of the proceedings.

It was in the early morning of August 23rd that the 12 were intercepted by Chinese coast guard vessels, just outside of Hong Kong waters. 11 of the 12 were fleeing charges relating to their involvement in the 2019 , and had skipped bail. One activist, Andy Li, had helped to arrange for international poll monitors to observe the city’s District Council elections in November 2019, and had travelled to the U.S. to speak with government officials.

The detention of the 12 in Shenzhen has transfixed and galvanized pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong government has come under heavy criticism after it was alleged that the city had deployed aircraft to surveil and track the 12 as they fled by boat, seemingly without attempting to stop them, leading to accusations that the government had collaborated in ensuring the activists would be detained on the mainland. Hong Kong’s Government Flying Service was subsequently placed on a U.S. government blacklist of “military end users.”

Nine other people have been arrested in Hong Kong for allegedly aiding the 12 activists in their plan to flee to Taiwan. One of the nine, Tang Yuen-Ching, is a longtime labor activist whose husband was detained on the mainland in the 1980s for assisting dissidents.

While pro- lawmakers in Hong Kong described the length of the sentences as lenient, family members and critics decried the punishments as unjustly harsh. Some analysts have viewed the sentences as a warning signal to deter others facing charges from fleeing the city. Over the last few months, prominent pro-democracy activists, including one former lawmaker, have fled to seek asylum overseas. Police sources leaked to the South China Morning Post that about 30 people residing overseas are wanted on suspicion of violating the Hong Kong Law.

Cases of activists and protestors fleeing abroad have led Hong Kong’s courts to impose much stricter conditions on suspects pending their trials. Several have been denied bail, effectively jailing them for months. Media tycoon Jimmy Lai was initially denied bail in November by a judge, citing his flight risk, but a higher court subsequently granted bail under strict conditions. On New Year’s Eve, prosecutors will attempt to reverse that decision before Hong Kong’s highest court.

Despite the increasingly stringent conditions being imposed on suspects by Hong Kong courts, trials of the close to nine thousand protestors arrested last year remain much more transparent than the trial of the Hong Kong 12 in Shenzhen. Quartz’s Mary Hui reported on the state of protest-related cases in Hong Kong, in which, she writes, some have found reassurance:

Nevertheless, most protest-related cases are being handled under existing laws, and some have looked to these processes for reassurance. Of the roughly 10,000 people arrested since erupted in June last year, less than a quarter had been prosecuted as of the end of October, according to the Hong Kong police. Of those, 695 have been charged with rioting, leading to two convictions, six guilty pleas, and 18 acquittals, according to the latest tally by local outlet the Stand News (link in Chinese). Numerous cases have been thrown out for lack of evidence, including instances where judges have found police testimony to be unreliable, contradictory, or outright false.

To some legal experts, these outcomes suggest that the courts are functioning as they should. “The judicial branch really hasn’t changed much,” said Simon Young, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s law faculty and a practicing barrister in the city. “Its role is to adjudicate cases, and that’s what it’s doing.”

Young also pointed to successful legal challenges against the government, such as one filed by the Hong Kong Journalists Association over police officers’ failure to display identification numbers, as evidence that the judiciary is continuing to fulfill its role of “flesh[ing] out the implications of the rights” that are protected under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. [Source]

The number of protestors being acquitted, as well as decisions such as the release of Jimmy Lai on bail, have attracted vicious criticism from Chinese state media, amplifying worries about the Chinese government’s pressure on judicial independence in Hong Kong. On Wednesday, Hong Kong’s Law Society, the professional association for the city’s solicitors which is widely considered less critical of the government than its sister group the Bar Association, urged the city’s government to defend the courts against attacks from state media.

Senior officials have offered no response.

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