A Chinese court sentenced 10 Hong Kong activists who had been detained after fleeing the territory by boat to between seven months and three years in prison for illegal border crossing on Wednesday, in a case that had drawn international concern.
The two who organised the boat journey were sentenced to three years and two years, respectively, while the others received seven-month sentences, the court in Shenzhen said.
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All 10 were also fined, it added. The remaining two – aged just 16 and 17 – were repatriated to the custody of the Hong Kong police.
The ten, who the Hong Kong authorities say were facing charges over last year’s pro-democracy protests, were put on trial on Monday after being held since August 23 without access to lawyers or their family. Furnished with government-appointed lawyers rather than their own, they all pleaded guilty in proceedings that lasted less than a day.
In a statement, their families said the proceedings amounted to a “de facto secret trial” of the group who were detained by the Chinese coastguard.
“The basic rights of the 12 Hongkongers have already been deprived by the Chinese authority,” they said. “The unfair court proceedings is evidence of an obvious, draconian political persecution.”
The group’s case has attracted widespread interest with the European Union on Tuesday issuing a statement calling for the group’s release, echoing earlier calls from the United States.
“These sentences meted out after an unfair trial lay bare the dangers faced by anybody who finds themselves tried under the Chinese criminal system,’ Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director Yamini Mishra said in a statement, noting that foreign observers had been excluded from the proceedings.
“The Chinese authorities have shown the world once again that political activists will not receive fair trial. The Hong Kong youths were deprived of the right to defend themselves through legal representation of their own choosing. Multiple mainland lawyers attempted to represent them at the families’ request, but they have been threatened by the Chinese authorities to force them to drop the cases.”
Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown, reporting from Hong Kong, says the group’s case had also sparked concern among the territory’s residents, and some sympathy.
“In the eyes of many it’s a measure of just how desperate they were to leave Hong Kong,” Brown said, noting that the Hong Kong government has characterised them as fugitives from justice.
Hong Kong was promised political freedoms unknown on the mainland when it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, but a crackdown on the pro-democracy camp has accelerated since last year’s mass protests and China’s imposition on June 30 of a new national security law.
While some prominent activists, including Nathan Law, have gone into exile, others have been charged in court and some jailed.
China had said the two teenagers would be tried separately, but on Wednesday morning state media reported they would instead be returned to Hong Kong.
The teenagers, each wearing a hood, were handed over at the China-Hong Kong border of Shenzhen Bay port.
Hong Kong police said they could now face additional charges of allegedly trying to abscond, but would first be required to spend two weeks in quarantine.
“Society will take a zero tolerance approach towards anyone who tries to absond,” Cheng Lai-kei, chief superintendent of the commercial crime bureau was quoted as saying by public broadcaster RTHK.