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China gives prison terms to 10 Hong Kongers who tried to flee the city by boat

A car carries one of 12 Hong Kong activists detained at sea by Chinese authorities
A car carries a hooded Hong Kong activist who was one of 12 people detained at sea as they tried to flee the city by speedboat.
(Kin Cheung / Associated Press)

A Chinese court Wednesday sentenced 10 pro-democracy activists and protesters who sought to flee Hong Kong by speedboat to between seven months and three years in prison, in a case with major political overtones for the semi-autonomous city.

The Yantian District Court in the southern city of Shenzhen gave the harshest sentences to the two accused organizers of the ill-fated Aug. 23 attempt to reach self-ruled Taiwan by sea. Relatives said all the defendants pleaded guilty, apparently in hope of receiving lighter sentences.

The defendants are believed to have feared they would be prosecuted for their 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 city by Beijing in June.

The organizers received sentences of two and three years, while the eight other participants were given seven-month sentences.

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They were among 12 people on board when their boat was stopped by Chinese authorities. The court said it held a private hearing for two minors and would not charge them for illegally crossing the border even though they had admitted guilt.

The two youngest detainees — ages 17 and 18 — were handed over to Hong Kong police by mainland authorities Wednesday.

They could face additional charges in the city for absconding, police said at a news conference in Hong Kong. The two teenagers were given the chance to speak with their families by phone, and relatives will be able to visit them Wednesday, police said.

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Relatives of Wong Wai-yin and Li Tsz-yin, who received prison sentences of seven months, said in a voice recording that they hoped the mainland government would give clear instructions on visiting rights. The recording was released by the 12 Hongkongers Concern Group, which is assisting the families.

Relatives of the defendants said they were prevented from hiring their own lawyers and that the charges were politically motivated. The defendants could have been sentenced to up to a year in prison for crossing the border and seven years for organizing 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, travelers must still pass through immigration when going to and from mainland China, which surrounds Hong Kong by land and sea.

China is targeting government opponents through financial institutions using a draconian national security law that’s already led to U.S. sanctions.

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The sentences appear to be a warning to opposition activists not to try evading enforcement of the national security law.

“China is a country under rule of law, where laws must be followed and violations must be punished. China’s judicial organs handled the case in strict accordance of law,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a news conference.

Hong Kong has already frozen assets and issued arrest warrants for several government opponents who have fled abroad, including to Britain, which governed the city until it was handed back to China in 1997.

The U.S. and several European countries have called for the 12 detained at sea to be released and returned to Hong Kong, saying their trial was not fair. Along with not being able to pick their own legal representation, their access to government-appointed lawyers was heavily restricted, the European Union said in a statement.

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“The defendants’ rights to a fair trial and due process — in accordance with international human rights law and as provided by China’s Criminal Procedure Law — have not been respected. We call on China to guarantee procedural fairness and due process of law for these individuals,” the EU said.


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