Ten people who tried to flee Hong Kong for Taiwan have been sentenced in a Chinese court to up to three years in jail, while two minors will be returned home without charge.
On Wednesday the Yantian people’s court ordered the group to serve varying sentences of between seven months and three years in jail. Of the two people charged with organising the illegal border crossing, one was sentenced to three years and fined RMB20,000 (£2,260), and the other to two years and fined RMB15,000.
The remaining eight people, all charged with illegally crossing the border, were jailed for seven months and fined RMB10,000.
All members of the group are believed to have pleaded guilty at the one-day trial on Monday, which was effectively closed to the public, as foreign diplomats and press were turned away from the courtroom. The trial date was announced just three days earlier, leaving family members no time to travel to Shenzhen and complete quarantine.
The two remaining members of the group, both aged under 18, were set to be returned into the custody of Hong Kong police on Wednesday morning. The Yantian people’s procuratorate in Shenzhen said after a “non public hearing and investigation” it had decided not to charge the minors after they admitted guilt.
The group – dubbed the Hong Kong 12 by supporters and media, and “separatists” by Chinese authorities – were apprehended in the early hours of 23 August, when Guangdong coastguards intercepted their speedboat off the coast of Hong Kong. The 12 on board, aged 16 to 33, were allegedly bound for Taiwan, fleeing charges related to the 2019 protests. Among the passengers was Andy Li, an activist who had been arrested under the draconian national security law, suspected of foreign collusion.
The Hong Kong government has said mainland authorities told it the boat left Po Toi O at about 7am, crossing into mainland territory half an hour later, where it was intercepted 26 nautical miles outside of Hong Kong waters. However, with few details provided by Chinese authorities suspicions have persisted that the boat was not yet in Chinese waters.
The group was taken to Shenzhen on the mainland, and their families and Hong Kong authorities were not informed until days later. According to their relatives they were cut off from contacting the outside world, denied medication, and their chosen lawyers refused access. Other mainland lawyers alleged authorities had tried to pressure them into not representing their clients. In November families received letters from the detainees, but the contents only increased their concerns.
It wasn’t until mid-December that they were eventually charged. Two were accused or organising an illegal border crossing, another eight of committing it. Two of the group are minors, and while authorities said their cases would be heard in a closed door session at a later date, on Wednesday it was revealed they would instead be returned to Hong Kong.
The arrests became a flashpoint for the pro-democracy movement, which was and still is being heavily targeted by authorities. Since the introduction of the national security law in June, dozens have been arrested, and high profile activists jailed or forced into exile.