Trials for ten people accused of attempting to flee Hong Kong by speedboat amid a government crackdown on dissent got underway in China on Monday amid tight security.
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 and were ongoing.
Asked about the case, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said it was “currently being processed,” but did not confirm the trial had begun.
“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 US Embassy statement on the case as interference in China’s “judicial sovereignty.”
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.
Relatives of the 12 say that they have been prevented from hiring their own lawyers and that 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 flight attempt was apparently prompted by the enforcement of a tough national security law imposed on Hong Kong that has ensnared numerous high-level dissidents and those who participated in anti-government protests in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory last year.
Since the law’s imposition by Beijing in June, 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 the 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 that the group doubted the trials would be fair since defendants had 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.”
Amnesty said that 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.