SHENZHEN, China: Relatives of 10 Hong Kong people who have been linked to anti-Beijing protests in the city and held in a Chinese prison for four months on Monday (Dec 28) appealed to a mainland court for a swift decision on their case.
The group, whose case is being dealt with by a court in Shenzhen, a city on the border with semi-autonomous 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 the former British colony at a time of growing fears about prospects for its high degree of autonomy after Beijing imposed a draconian national security law in June.
READ: Hong Kong residents arrested at sea 'will have to be dealt with' by mainland China: Carrie Lam
International human rights groups have raised concern over the defendants treatment after their families said they were denied access to independent lawyers.
"They try to say it's an open trial but they also say all the seats are occupied. The family members don't have the right to attend the trial. That's absurd," said Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China.
"They don't have the right to appoint their own lawyer. They don't even know the names of the government-appointed lawyers."
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, Raab 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.