SHENZHEN, CHINA (REUTERS) - A Chinese court on Monday (Dec 28) heard the case of 10 Hong Kong activists alleged to have fled the territory for Taiwan amid anti-China protests and held in a Chinese prison for four months as their relatives appealed for a swift resolution.
The group, whose case is being dealt with by a court in Shenzhen, on the border with the semi-autonomous former British colony of Hong Kong, faced charges that include illegal border crossing after their boat was intercepted allegedly en route to Taiwan. Authorities detained the 11 males and one female at sea on Aug 23.
The youngest is 16. The 12, who had all faced charges in Hong Kong regarding anti-government protests there, have been held virtually incommunicado in a mainland prison since they were detained.
Pro-democracy activists began fleeing Hong Kong for democratic Taiwan from the early months of the protests last year, most of them legally by air, but some by boat, activists in Taipei have told Reuters.
Chinese officials, who have described the group as separatists, said two would have a separate hearing as they are minors.
Andy Li, one of the detainees, is facing charges related to a national security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in June for which some offences carry a sentence of up to life in jail.
The charges of illegal border crossing and organising an illicit border crossing carry a sentence of up to seven years in jail, mainland authorities said.
A Reuters reporter was not allowed into the court, nor were diplomats. A concern group supporting the families of those detained said none of the defendants' relatives attended the trial.
At a news conference in Hong Kong, relatives of some of those detained pleaded for transparency. "I'm begging the courts to quickly give a sentence," said the mother of Wong Wai-yin, 29, one of the defendants. "I really want to see my son very much. If you do not give him a sentence, I cannot see him. If you give him a sentence, then I can go see him. All I want is just to see his face once."
The court said the judgment would be delivered at a later date, without elaborating on a time frame. It was not clear if the plaintiffs made a plea.
The case has attracted much attention in Hong Kong as a rare instance of Chinese authorities arresting people trying to leave at a time of growing fears about prospects for its high degree of autonomy after Beijing imposed a draconian national security law in June.
International human rights groups have raised concern over the defendants' treatment after their families said they were denied access to independent lawyers.
"China must guarantee that all 10 people ... as well as the two others detained with them, get fair and public hearings," Amnesty International said in a statement. "They must also ensure that none of the 12 are subjected to torture or other ill-treatment."
Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, slammed the trial.
"They don't have the right to appoint their own lawyer. They don't even know the names of the government-appointed lawyers, "he said.
Diplomats from countries including the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia, were denied entry for the hearing after authorities said the court was full.
"We've been denied entry. The official explanation given is that the case does not involve any foreign citizens," one Western envoy told Reuters.
British foreign secretary Dominic Raab said his government was deeply concerned that the 12 were tried in secret. London expected China to uphold the rule of law and conduct trials in a fair and transparent manner, he said.
The US Embassy in China urged authorities to release the fugitives and allow them to leave. "Their so-called 'crime' was to flee tyranny. Communist China will stop at nothing to prevent its people from seeking freedom elsewhere," the embassy said in a statement.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the guarantee of freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including freedom of speech. Protesters who took to the streets for months last year complain that Communist Party rulers in Beijing are whittling away at those freedoms, a charge Beijing denies.