China Jails 10 Hong Kong Activists Over Attempt to Flee by Boat

China sentenced 10 Hong Kong activists who made a dramatic attempt to flee by boat to up to three years in prison, defying calls for their release from the U.S. and others.

Activist Tang Kai-yin was sentenced to three years while Quinn Moon was jailed for two years over their roles in organizing an illegal border crossing, the Yantian District People’s Court in Shenzhen said in a statement Wednesday. Eight other activists who participated in the attempt in August were handed terms of seven months, the court said.

They will also face fines ranging from 10,000 yuan ($1,500) to 20,000 yuan, according to the statement. A pair of minors who also made the trip were sent back to Hong Kong without charge after admitting to participating in an illegal border crossing.

The verdicts may not be the end of the legal jeopardy for the so-called “Hong Kong 12,” who were captured by coast guard authorities from neighboring Guangdong province in August as they tried to flee to the democratically-run island of Taiwan. Hong Kong police vowed to pursue outstanding charges against the group when they return to the city, and at least one member, Andy Li, is facing allegations under a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing in June.

The case has become a rallying cry for pro-democracy activists in the former British colony, where historic protests against Beijing’s rule have dwindled amid the security law and Covid-19 restrictions. The verdict could further strain relations between the U.S. and China, as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office after years of deteriorating ties under Donald Trump.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing had earlier called on China to release the 12 and allow them to leave the country.

“Their so-called ‘crime’ was to flee tyranny,” the embassy said Monday. “Communist China will stop at nothing to prevent its people from seeking freedom elsewhere. We call on Beijing and the Hong Kong government to abide by their international obligations and commitments and to respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of Hong Kong.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a briefing in Beijing that the U.S. comments “disregard facts and confuse right and wrong.” The U.S. should “stop using Hong Kong issues to interfere in China’s domestic affairs and immediately stop interfering in China’s judicial sovereignty,” Zhao said.

The ages of the defendants range from 16 to 33 and include 11 men and one woman. One is a Portuguese national. Family members of the 12 published an open letter to international governments on Saturday, appealing to them to urge China’s government for transparency on the trial’s proceedings and to ensure the human rights of the activists.

The court statement said the two organizers had been given relatively lenient sentences because they were accomplices to the crime and had been “organized by others,” without elaborating. The other eight activists had also been given lighter sentences, the court said, without giving further detail.

The charge of organizing an illegal border crossing carries sentence of two to seven years in prison under Chinese criminal law, although some cases can result in life terms. The charge of participating in one is punishable by a jail term of less than a year.

Cheng Lai-ki, the acting chief superintendent of the Hong Kong police’s Commercial Crime Bureau, told a news briefing Wednesday that the agency would continue to follow up on allegations that prompted their flight attempt. The two minors face allegations including conspiracy to commit arson and possession of weapons while, Cheng said, as well as “failing to surrender to custody.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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