By Shirley Lau
Hong Kong, Dec 28 (efe-epa).- Ten of the 12 young Hongkongers captured at sea by Chinese coast guards after fleeing Hong Kong by boat plead guilty during their trial Monday at a court in Shenzhen, mainland China.
The trial began at 14.30 Shenzhen time (04.30 GMT) on Monday and concluded four hours later, according to the Yantian District People’s Court on its website.
Chu Hoi-dick, a former lawmaker who has been assisting the families of the detainees, told Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK his understanding was that “there should be no one denying their charges.”
The court previously announced that the trial, a high-profile case that marks the first time Hong Kong activists were tried under mainland China’s judicial system, would be held behind closed doors. On Monday morning, however, court officials told RTHK that there would be an open trial, but that all the seats had been reserved.
China-based diplomats of Western countries including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Portugal and the Netherlands reportedly tried and failed to attend the trial, according to Apple Daily.
The 12 detainees, 11 male and one female aged 16 to 33, all faced charges in Hong Kong connected with the city’s anti-government protests last year.
Two of the 12 defendants are minors and are to face a hearing separately later. Among the 10 facing the Monday trial, two are charged with “organizing other persons to secretly cross the border”, a crime punishable by a maximum term of seven years in jail.
The other eight, as well as the two minors, have been charged with “secretly crossing the border” and face up to one year in prison.
On 23 August, they were captured in mainland Chinese waters by the Guangdong coast guard, apparently while trying to flee to Taiwan on a speedboat. They have been held in Shenzhen for 128 days without access to their families.
Families of the defendants were informed of the Monday trial on Christmas Day. The 14-day quarantine rule in mainland China means they were unable to attend the hearing.
Earlier on, the US embassy in China called for the Chinese government to immediately release the 12. The statement said: “Their so-called ‘crime’ was to flee tyranny. Communist China will stop at nothing to prevent its people from seeking freedom elsewhere.”
The detainment of the Hongkongers has drawn widespread attention at home and abroad. There are concerns that the 12 will not get a fair trial under mainland China’s judicial system, which has a conviction rate of more than 99 percent.
Recently, families of some of the detainees received handwritten letters from the detainees saying they were fine while in custody. But the families believe they had written the letters under duress.
Hong Kong Watch, a UK-based human rights group, has said the trial is a “watershed case” for the semi-autonomous Chinese city as it will shed light on whether the extradition of pro-democracy activists to mainland China to stand trials will become a common practice.
In Hong Kong, several activists led by former lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan held a protest outside the Liaison Office, Beijing’s top representative office in the city.
They condemned the Chinese authorities for detaining the 12 and also for handing down a four-year jail term Monday morning on Chinese citizen-journalist Zhang Zhan, who reported about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan last year.
Yantian District People’s Court said online that it would organize a date for the sentencing, although offered no further information as to timing, and that some family members would be permitted access to the process.
However, in a press conference after the trial, Hong Kong politician Lester Shum, who is assisting the families, said none of the relatives had been informed about what happened in the court proceedings.
Shum added that until the court fixes a date for the sentencing, the families will not be able to visit the detainees.