What started as a potentially lucrative business trip for one Hongkonger to buy surgical masks and a dream honeymoon for another ended in a Russian detention nightmare for both after they were accused of breaking the country’s quarantine laws.
In an ordeal lasting three weeks, a businessman seeking masks for Hong Kong’s coronavirus fight, who gives his name as Sky, describes being held in a dirty, crowded cell in Moscow before his deportation to mainland China, where he was briefly detained ahead of his return home to compulsory quarantine.
A similar trauma befell another Hong Kong resident – a newlywed who is also now back in the city after visiting Russia with her husband.
Despite landing back in Hong Kong on Monday, Sky’s saga is continuing because his 11-hour stopover at Shanghai Airport forces him into home quarantine for 14 days, a legal requirement for those arriving into Hong Kong from the mainland.
Both Hongkongers were held in a deportation centre in Russia after inadvertently violating quarantine legislation in separate visits to Moscow in mid-February.
Recounting his experiences to the Post on his return home, Sky said he had slept on an iron bed in a room shared with 10 other people.
“Initially we only had two cups of water a day, and when you put the cup down you could see all the dirt and dust. Some even developed diarrhoea after drinking them,” said the Hongkonger, who is in his 30s.
“We only received bottled water from the embassy after some protest.”
Sky landed in Moscow on February 18, two days before a ban on all arrivals from China, including Hong Kong, came into force.
He said immigration officials did not tell him of the quarantine orders, which had come into force on February 14.
After visiting Saint Petersburg, he was eventually tracked down on the Moscow subway – a day before his scheduled flight home – and initially sent on February 24 to a quarantine camp in Tsaritsyno, where up to 100 Chinese people were held.
Within days he said he was moved to a deportation centre, where he stayed between March 3 and 15, admitted his guilt and paid a 5,000 Russian roubles fine (HK$520) without fully understanding the charges against him.
“I actually signed the conviction document and [was] fined while inside the deportation centre. I wrote ‘I don’t understand’ on each page. It was a complete mess,” he said. “There is nothing the Chinese embassy could do.”
His business deal for up to 30,000 surgical masks fell through because he could not pick them up while in mandatory quarantine.
After nearly two weeks in detention, Sky said 10 Chinese students, all convicted of violating quarantine conditions, were put on flights to Beijing, Shanghai or Bangkok.
According to pro-establishment lawmaker Elizabeth Quat, the Hong Kong woman was fined the equivalent of about HK$520 on February 27, later losing contact with her freed husband , who holds a Thai passport.
While Hong Kong’s Immigration Department said she was sent to a quarantine centre, Sky, who met her later when they were quarantined, said she was detained straight away.
After serving their sentences, they were denied their requests to be deported directly to Hong Kong, compounding their misery.
The Russian authorities did not tell them why they were deported to the mainland rather than Hong Kong.
Russia has taken a hardline approach against China to contain the spread of Covid-19, despite the countries’ close diplomatic ties.
The Chinese embassy in Moscow said in early March that about 80 Chinese nationals were placed in the Tsaritsyno camp, adding it provided consular assistance and legal advice.
But Russian newspaper Kommersant reported last week that about 100 Chinese nationals in Moscow, mostly students, would be deported from Russia for violating self-quarantine orders.
Court documents, cited by the paper, showed many students were unaware of what they were agreeing to when signing the orders.
They were reportedly put on trial via video call and were left frustrated and distressed by their brush with the Russian legal system.
The Chinese Embassy in Moscow has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
The Immigration Department said it had immediately contacted the Chinese Embassy in Russia and Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Hong Kong after receiving requests for assistance.
“The Chinese Embassy in Russia had visited the Hong Kong residents concerned in order to ensure their interests and legitimate rights being protected, and urged the authorities concerned in Russia to handle the issue in a fair and proper way,” it said.
While Sky was banned for five years from visiting Russia, which he was considering challenging in a complaint to the Russian consulate in Hong Kong, he managed to escape a travel ban on any foreign travel from Russia, which came into force a day after he returned home.
As of Tuesday, Russia has reported 114 Covid-19 cases.
Sky said on Monday he was glad to be on home soil, even though he found himself in quarantine again.
“It’s good to finally be back despite all the hiccups,” he said.
“It’s fine to be quarantined at home. I don’t want to create more risk of infection to Hong Kong. At least I’m free now.”
Despite his ongoing ordeal – which has seen him quarantined and held in Russia, briefly detained in Shanghai and quarantined again in Hong Kong – Sky said he held no resentment towards the Russian people.
“I believe I will continue to go to Russia in future. You have to separate the government from the people,” he said.
More from South China Morning Post:
- Hong Kong trader sourcing masks in Russia held for quarantine violation, faces deportation
- In sickness and in health: Hong Kong weddings during the coronavirus outbreak