EU demands China release 12 Hong Kong activists as trial begins

EU statement comes as Brussels gears up to agree a significant investment deal with China.

Ten defendants face charges of illegally crossing the border while two of them are also charged with organising the attempt [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

The European Union has demanded Beijing release 12 Hong Kong pro-democracy activists arrested while trying to leave the territory by boat.

The EU statement came on Tuesday as 10 of those activists went on trial in China while Brussels gears up to agree a significant investment deal with Beijing despite concerns over the country’s rights and labour record.

Relatives of the 10 Hong Kongers accused of fleeing the city by speedboat during a government crackdown on dissent say they have been informed that their family members pleaded guilty, according to a support group.

The families of the detainees were informed by court-appointed lawyers on Tuesday that a court in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen will deliver the verdicts on Wednesday, according to the 12 Hongkongers Concern Group, which is assisting the families.

It was not clear whether the 10 would also be sentenced on Wednesday, but Chinese courts often issue sentences at the same time as verdicts.

The 10 defendants all faced charges of illegally crossing the border, while two of them faced additional charges of organising the attempt, according to an indictment issued in Shenzhen.

The trials began on Monday afternoon, according to a statement issued by the Shenzhen Yantian District court.

Separate hearings were expected for two minors who were also aboard the boat that was apparently heading for Taiwan when it was stopped by the Chinese coast guard on August 23.

The defendants are believed to have feared they would be prosecuted for their past activities in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

Hong Kong media reports said at least one may have had a warrant out for his arrest under a tough new national security law imposed on the semi-autonomous territory by Beijing in June.

Relatives of the defendants say that they have been prevented from hiring their own lawyers and that the accusations are politically motivated.

The defendants can be sentenced to up to a year in prison for crossing the border and seven years for organising the trip.

They were picked up after entering mainland Chinese waters for crossing the maritime border without permission.

While Hong Kong is part of China, travellers must still pass through immigration when going to and from the mainland.

The defendants apparently needed to pass through Chinese waters to get to open seas.

Source: News Agencies