A group of Hong Kong activists arrested by mainland Chinese authorities while trying to flee by sea to Taiwan in August reportedly pleaded guilty in a neighbouring Shenzhen court on Monday in what was officially described as an open hearing attended by the defendants’ family members and journalists.
The Yantian People’s Court announced that a judgment date would be decided later, even as family members said they had not been allowed to attend the hearing, while journalists from the Post and other Hong Kong media as well as Western diplomats were kept out of the court building.
The judicial body said the case against the eight defendants accused of illegally crossing the border and two of organising the crime was heard “in accordance with the law and in an open trial”.
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“The court listened to the procuratorate’s opinion, as well as the defence of each defendant and their lawyers,” it said. “A date will be decided for the announcement of this case’s judgment.”
The statement made no mention of their pleas, but pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po reported the 10 admitted their guilt and asked for leniency.
The court also said the trial was attended by Hong Kong delegates to Shenzhen’s political advisory body, but three prominent ones said they were not present.
The group of activists, which includes Andy Li who stands accused of violating the national security law in Hong Kong, have been held in Shenzhen since their capture at sea while attempting to escape to Taiwan to avoid charges tied to last year’s anti-government protests. Two fugitives, both underage, face closed-door hearings that will decide whether charges are pressed.
At an emotional press conference held in Mong Kok in Hong Kong afterwards, the families of the defendants strongly rejected the court’s claims. They described the hearing as “a de facto secret trial” and noted no details of the proceedings were released to the public. As far as they knew, no close relatives of the dozen were allowed to attend, and they demanded the Shenzhen court hand down its judgment as soon as possible.
“I believe they already pleaded guilty,” said the tearful mother of Li Tsz-yin, a 29-year-old surveyor. “I don’t understand why the authorities are still dragging on with no end in sight … They have been detained for more than four months. I really hope to see my son.”
The brother of Tang Kai-yin, 30, who was charged with organising the illegal crossing, was disappointed that none of the government-appointed lawyers could not be reached on Monday to answer questions.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab expressed deep concern that the defendants were “tried in secret”, having been given just three days’ notice of the hearing.
“The Shenzhen 12 have not had access to lawyers of their choosing, raising further serious questions about access to legal counsel in mainland China,” Raab said. “We expect China to uphold the rule of law and conduct trials in a fair and transparent manner, consistent with the basic requirements of international human rights law.”
Outside the court, temporary barriers surrounded most of the building, with a sign telling pedestrians to go around. Police vans and officers on motorcycles patrolled in a constant circle around the block.
Just as the hearing was set to get under way at 2.30pm, diplomats from Britain, the United States, Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and Canada could be seen standing outside the entrance of the court. They were not allowed to enter as the public gallery was full.
Under mainland regulations, diplomats must receive prior permission to attend hearings, and a US State Department spokesman said the American consulate general in Guangzhou in Guangdong province had requested access in accordance with established procedures.
The US embassy in Beijing earlier urged authorities to release the dozen and allow them to depart the country.
“Their so-called ‘crime’ was to flee tyranny. Communist China will stop at nothing to prevent its people from seeking freedom elsewhere,” a spokesman said. “We call on Beijing and the Hong Kong government to abide by their international obligations and commitments and to respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of Hong Kong.”
The Chinese foreign ministry hit back, saying the 10 were charged in relation to illegally crossing the border and Washington had “ignored the facts, and mixed up right and wrong”.
“The Chinese side strongly objects to that and urges the US to abide by international law,” spokesman Zhao Lijian said. “Hong Kong issues are China’s domestic affairs and the case concerned fell within China’s jurisdiction.”
Asked why the diplomats were refused entry to the courthouse, Zhao only said that as “China is a country with the rule of law, its judiciary handles cases in accordance with the law”.
Three high-profile Hong Kong delegates to the Shenzhen municipal Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference – businessman Jaime Sze Wine-him, academic Fang Zhou and Witman Hung Wai-man – said they had not attended the proceedings.
The trial was not among the court’s list of hearings to be live-streamed. The schedule posted on its website only mentioned three civil cases involving loan disputes. According to a source, the 10 defendants attended the trial in person.
There was conflicting information as to whether the trial would be open to members of the public. A court staff member said last week the hearing would be closed, although some Hong Kong media outlets reported on Monday that another employee had said the opposite.
Lawyers assigned by Shenzhen authorities told the fugitives’ families that they did not need to go to Shenzhen for the hearing. The counsel appointed by the families were denied access to their clients and asked not to comment on the matter.
While many hearings in Shenzhen are done via video conferencing to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, courts have allowed in-person trials for some commercial cases.
Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole representative to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, told local media on Saturday that Beijing was treating the case “seriously” and “in accordance with the law and regulations”.
The fugitives’ families had urged foreign governments in an open letter to send embassy personnel to the hearing. Among the dozen are dual citizens with British, Portuguese and Vietnamese nationalities, according to the letter.
Illegally crossing the border is punishable by up to one year in prison. Organisers of the crime face up to seven years’ jail, while those running cross-border syndicates can be sentenced to life in prison.
Additional reporting by Guo Rui
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