For Hong Kong activists now in exile, a year of dissent and despair has left emotional wounds they will carry for years.
The trials of 10 people from Hong Kong detained at sea while allegedly en route to Taiwan got underway in mainland China, a court official said on Monday, as campaigners urged fair hearings and the United States called for the group’s “immediate release”.
The defendants are part of a group of 12 who were intercepted by the Chinese coastguard on August 23 and have been held virtually incommunicado in a mainland prison since.
They face charges of illegal border crossing and organising an illicit border crossing, which could carry a sentence of up to seven years in jail.
Their case has attracted great interest as a rare instance of mainland authorities detaining people trying to leave semi-autonomous Hong Kong, where democracy activists last year led enormous protests against Beijing’s rule.
Chinese officials, who have described the 12 as separatists, said the remaining two are minors and would have a separate hearing.
A spokesperson for the Yantian District People’s Court in Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, said the trials began on Monday afternoon as scheduled and were ongoing. The spokesperson declined to give her name, as is usual among Chinese court officials.
Diplomats from countries including the US, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, were denied entry for the much-anticipated hearing after authorities said the court was full.
“We’ve been denied entry. The official explanation given is that the case does not involve any foreign citizens,” one Western envoy told Reuters news agency.
All 12 are also facing charges in Hong Kong linked to the anti-government protests, including rioting and violation of a national security law that Beijing imposed on the city in June. The Hong Kong government has said the defendants must face justice on the mainland before returning to Hong Kong, where they are expected to be further investigated for the alleged protest-related crimes.
Families of the accused have called for the hearing in the Shenzhen court to be broadcast live, after they were unable to attend due to the short notice for the trial and COVID-19 requirements.
They were only notified of the trial date on Friday, while their lawyers have been barred from meeting the detainees.
Authorities instead have appointed state-approved legal representation.
In a statement ahead of Monday’s trial, Amnesty International called for fair and public hearings.
“We fear that the chance of these young Hongkongers getting a fair trial in China is remote given they have so far been deprived of their basic rights, including the right to defend themselves through legal representation of their own choosing,” said Amnesty’s Hong Kong Programme Manager Lam Cho Ming.
“Their families have repeatedly been denied direct access to them, and several mainland lawyers who have attempted to represent them at the families’ request have been threatened by the Chinese authorities to force them to drop the case.”
Amnesty said detainees Quinn Moon and Tang Kai-yin have been charged with “organising other persons to secretly cross the border” and face up to seven years’ imprisonment, while the 10 others have been charged with “secretly crossing the border” and face up to a year in jail.
Their families, in a joint letter over the weekend, said they “strongly condemn” the authorities’ decision to hold the trial in “de facto secret” at Yantian District People’s Court.
“We urge governments to send embassy personnel to the hearing to guarantee a proper and fair trial by the courts in Shenzhen,” they said.
The US embassy in China called on Chinese authorities to release the 12 fugitives and permit them to depart the country.
“Their so-called ‘crime’ was to flee tyranny. Communist China will stop at nothing to prevent its people from seeking freedom elsewhere,” the embassy statement said.
In response, China said the US should stop using the Hong Kong issue to interfere in its domestic affairs, with Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian telling a news conference that the US remarks “disregard facts”.
China has a history of putting dissidents on trial around the Christmas and New Year period, a time when international scrutiny is typically relaxed.
“Obviously (the Chinese authorities) are rushing during the Christmas period so as to minimise international backlash,” Beatrice Li, sister of detainee Andy Li, told Reuters on Friday.
Unlike in Hong Kong, where the justice system is independent and based on common law, mainland Chinese courts are loyal to the Communist Party and do not challenge the party’s accusations. Conviction rates are close to 100 percent.
The former British colony of Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with a guarantee of freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland under a “one country, two systems” formula agreed to by Beijing and London.
Pro-democracy protesters believe those freedoms are being eroded by Beijing, especially with the imposition of the national security law.
China denies curbing rights and freedoms and says the legislation was needed to ensure law and order.