HONG KONG • A Chinese court yesterday jailed 10 Hong Kong democracy activists for up to three years over a bid to flee the city by speedboat to Taiwan, as a crackdown on dissent in the territory intensifies.
The group was arrested by the Chinese coast guard on Aug 23 en route to the self-ruled island, which has quietly opened its doors to Hong Kongers seeking sanctuary.
The court in Shenzhen sentenced Tang Kai Yin to three years in jail and Quinn Moon to two years for organising an illegal border crossing.
The eight others received seven months behind bars for illegally crossing the border.
They were also fined up to 20,000 yuan (S$4,000) in addition to their jail terms.
The sentencing follows this year's imposition of a new security law in Hong Kong that gives the government broad powers to prosecute political dissidents.
A number of activists have fled overseas and political organisations have shuttered their doors as Beijing seeks to keep a lid on unrest that rocked the financial hub for months last year.
Twelve people were caught on the boat. The group were facing prosecution in Hong Kong linked to last year's protests before trying to escape. They are likely to face further charges in the city after serving their mainland sentences.
Two minors from the group, aged 17 and 18, were returned to the city yesterday after they admitted to wrongdoing, Chinese officials said.
The pair face charges of conspiracy to commit arson and possession of an offensive weapon and have been remanded in custody.
The Yantian District People's Procuratorate said it would not pursue its case against the two teenagers.
Lawyers of the 10 adult activists yesterday said the sentences were too heavy and the allegation of organising a border crossing was not substantiated.
According to mainland media, Tang bought the boat in August and learnt basic driving skills for the escape, while Quinn Moon was responsible for communicating with the rest of the group, urging them to tell the coast guard they were going fishing if caught.
They all pleaded guilty to the crime and signed confession papers in the presence of lawyers, Guangdong's Southern Daily reported.
The United States on Monday called for the immediate release of the group, saying they were "fleeing tyranny".
"Communist China will stop at nothing to prevent its people from seeking freedom elsewhere," a US embassy spokesman said.
Amnesty International said that the group were at risk of torture while serving sentences in mainland jails.
China's Foreign Ministry on Monday pushed back against the criticism.
Spokesman Zhao Lijian said Washington must "immediately stop interfering in China's internal affairs through the Hong Kong issue and immediately stop interfering in China's judicial sovereignty".
The security law in Hong Kong gives the authorities powers of prosecution for acts considered as terrorism, secession, subversion or collusion with foreign entities.
Beijing says the law was needed to restore peace and stability, but critics have condemned it as a fatal attack on Hong Kong's freedoms.