Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has said that 12 residents of the city who were arrested at sea by Chinese authorities were not pro-democracy activists, reiterating that the detainees would have to face justice on the mainland.
Lam’s comment on Tuesday came after relatives of some of the detainees called for their urgent return to semi-autonomous Hong Kong and pleaded with the authorities to allow the 12 to consult lawyers appointed by their families, and not the Chinese government.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also expressed deep concern over the arrests, describing the detainees as “democracy activists” in a statement on Friday.
The group was taken into custody on August 23 while allegedly attempting to travel to Taiwan by boat. A statement from the public security bureau in Shenzhen, a southern Chinese city, said the 12 Hong Kong people – aged 16 to 33 – were under “compulsory criminal detention” for illegal entry into mainland China.
The incident occurred against the backdrop of a crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, including several arrests under a new national security law that punishes anything Beijing deems secession, subversion, “terrorism” and collusion with foreign forces.
“The reason for them leaving Hong Kong seems to be that they were running away from legal responsibility,” Lam said at her regular weekly news conference.
“I want to set the record straight, because certain local and overseas individuals tried to shift the attention, describing them as democratic activists being oppressed.”
Hong Kong’s Security Bureau said on Monday that all 12 were suspected of committing crimes in Hong Kong.
Ten of them had been charged with offences such as manufacturing or possessing explosives, arson, rioting, assaulting police or possession of offensive weapons, the bureau said. Those 10 had been on bail and not allowed to leave Hong Kong.
One of the 12 was also suspected of “colluding with foreign forces” under the national security law. The Hong Kong Free Press identified the man as Andy Li, and said he was an activist and among those arrested during a mass roundup on August 10.
China’s foreign ministry previously labelled the group “separatists”.
Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the foreign ministry, said on Sunday on Twitter that the 12 detained were not “democratic activists, but elements attempting to separate #HongKong from China”.
Meanwhile, authorities in Hong Kong have urged Taiwan to return five Hong Kong people who fled the city by boat last month and were picked up by the Taiwanese coastguard in the South China Sea.
“We urge Taiwan to take up the responsibility of tackling cross-border crimes,” the statement by Hong Kong’s public security bureau read. “If they have allegedly committed a crime in Hong Kong, don’t harbour the criminals.”
Taiwan, a democratic self-ruled island, has opened its doors to people from Hong Kong, but officials there say anyone who enters must do so legally, even though its borders are largely closed due to coronavirus prevention steps.
Taiwan’s official Central News Agency reported late on Sunday the five “have basic rights including access to lawyers”, citing an unnamed source.
Taiwan’s government has declined to comment on the case, and Premier Su Tseng-chang, when asked about the five, told reporters on Monday the government cared deeply about people from Hong Kong.
“As for the help to Hong Kong people, certain individual cases we cannot reveal,” he said.