A group of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists who were arrested by the Chinese authorities while fleeing the city by boat were sentenced by a mainland court to between seven months and three years in prison on Wednesday.
The Shenzhen Yantian District People’s court sentenced Tang Kai-yin, 31, and Quinn Moon, 33, to three years and two years in jail, respectively, for organising an illegal border crossing, a statement said.
The remaining eight were sentenced to a “lighter punishment” of seven months in prison for illegally crossing the border, it added.
Two minors in the group – now aged 17 and 18 – were handed over to Hong Kong police on Wednesday.
The case of the Hong Kong 12, who were caught in August by the Chinese Coast Guard while trying to seek refuge in Taiwan, has drawn global attention amid concern about the detainees’ treatment.
The activists had been held virtually incommunicado since they were taken into custody in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, with no access to their families or the lawyers they had hired.
After sentencing, rights group Amnesty International said the group was “at risk of torture”.
“These sentences meted out after an unfair trial lay bare the dangers faced by anybody who finds themselves tried under the Chinese criminal system,” Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director Yamini Mishra said in a statement.
For months after their arrests the activists were held in detention without charge in Shenzhen.
A few weeks ago Chinese authorities finally charged 10 of the group: eight were accused of illegally crossing the border, which carries up to two years in jail, while two faced the more serious charge of organising the crossing, punishable by up to seven years.
The defendants went on trial on Monday. The hearing was closed to foreign reporters and diplomats – as many are in China – but the court said in a statement that both prosecution and defence lawyers spoke.
On Wednesday, Chinese authorities said the 10 convicted activists had pleaded guilty while the two minors had admitted wrongdoing.
Lawyers for the activists said the eight who received the lesser jail terms should be able to return home on March 24 allowing for time in custody already served.
They also said the sentences were too harsh and that the allegation of organising a border crossing was not substantiated, according to AFP news agency.
Since late last year, Taiwan has emerged as a sanctuary for Hong Kong activists escaping a growing crackdown on protesters.
The Washington Post reports that hundreds of Hongkongers have sought refuge on the island, most arriving legally by air but some using smugglers to get there by boat.
The case of the 12 detainees has highlighted the growing struggle for democracy activists in Hong Kong, which was once a key destination for refugees fleeing persecution.
Supporters of the Hong Kong 12 have rallied in at least a dozen cities around the world – from Taipei and New York to Adelaide and Vancouver.
Hours before the trial on Monday the US embassy in China urged the “immediate release” of the activists.
“Their so-called ‘crime’ was to flee tyranny,” a US embassy spokesperson told AFP. “Communist China will stop at nothing to prevent its people from seeking freedom elsewhere.”
The Chinese ministry of foreign affairs responded, calling on the US to “immediately stop interfering in China’s internal affairs through the Hong Kong issue”. (Source: BBC)