BEIJING (AP) — Trials for 10 people accused of attempting to flee Hong Kong by speedboat during a government crackdown on dissent began in China on Monday, a court official said.
The defendants face charges of illegally crossing the border, while two face additional charges of organizing the attempt, according to an indictment issued in the southern city of Shenzhen.
A spokesperson for the Yantian District People's Court in Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, said the trials began Monday afternoon as scheduled. The spokesperson declined to give her name, as is usual among Chinese court officials.
Separate hearings are expected for two minors who were also aboard the boat that was apparently heading for Taiwan when it was stopped by the Chinese coast guard on Aug. 23.
The defendants are believed to have feared they would be prosecuted for their past activities in support of Hong Kong's democratic opposition. 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 semi-autonomous territory by Beijing in June.
The families of seven of those charged received phone calls from their court-appointed lawyers saying their trials would begin Monday, a member of the 12 Hongkongers Concern Group told The Associated Press. It wasn't clear whether the trials had concluded. In a later statement, the group said the court had announced that sentencing would be announced "at a later date."
Asked about the case, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said it was "currently being processed."
"The people concerned are suspected of illegally crossing or organizing others to cross the border and are being prosecuted according to the law," Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing. He dismissed a U.S. Embassy statement calling for the 12 to be released as interference in China's "judicial sovereignty."
The embassy said the U.S. Consulate in the southern city of Guangzhou had "requested permission to observe the hearing in accordance with established procedures." The request was denied.
"Their so-called 'crime' was to flee tyranny," the embassy statement said. "Communist China will stop at nothing to prevent its people from seeking freedom elsewhere."
Relatives of the 12 say they have been prevented from hiring their own lawyers and the accusations against them are politically motivated. The defendants can be 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 the mainland. The defendants apparently needed to to pass through Chinese waters to get to open seas.
Since Beijing imposed the national security law, a number of government critics have fled Hong Kong, many to Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that has no formal ties with China's authoritarian government.
Hong Kong authorities have issued arrest warrants and frozen the assets of several people, including those who have sought refuge in the United Kingdom, which governed Hong Kong until its handover to Chinese rule in 1997 under a system that was supposed to preserve the city's separate legal, economic and social institutions for 50 years.
Amnesty International Hong Kong's program manager, Lam Cho Ming, said in a statement early Monday that the group doubted the trials would be fair since the defendants have been denied basic rights such as the ability to hire legal representation of their own choosing.
"China must guarantee that all 10 people whose case is set to be heard today, as well as the two others detained with them, get fair and public hearings," Lam said. "They must also ensure that none of the 12 are subjected to torture or other ill treatment."
The group said the defendants were joining in the hearing by video link, apparently due to coronavirus concerns, and that family members could not attend because of a required two-week quarantine period.
By HUIZHONG WU, reporting from Taipei, Taiwan, and KEN MORITSUGU, Associated Press