Concerns were growing Monday for the fate of a group of Hong Kongers in mainland custody after a senior Chinese official declared them “separatists” and lawyers were pressured to drop them as clients.
Authorities said they intercepted the 12 Hong Kongers trying to flee by boat to Taiwan last month, with the group handed over to police in neighbouring Shenzhen on the Chinese mainland.
Some of those on board were facing prosecution in Hong Kong for activities linked to last year’s huge and often violent pro-democracy protests.
China says the group are being held for illegally crossing its border — but there are fears they will face national security charges, which can carry a life prison sentence or execution.
Mainland lawyers appointed by the families were warned off the group, according to sources and individuals familiar with the case.
On Sunday Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, raised the prospect Beijing was treating the group as national security threats.
“They are not democratic activists, but elements attempting to separate HongKong from China,” Hua tweeted after her counterpart at the US State Department voiced concerns about the group’s disappearance into China’s opaque justice system.
Authorities only confirmed the group were in criminal detention late Sunday, more than 20 days after their initial arrest.
Illegal border crossing carries around one year in jail but national security crimes have up to death and life sentences in side China.
Conviction in the party controlled courts is all but guaranteed for those charged.
Two sources with direct knowledge of the cases said Monday mainland lawyers appointed by families to represent their loved ones were now being warned to abandon their clients in favour of “government appointed” lawyers.
One person, who was involved in the campaign to get the detained legal representation and requested anonymity to speak freely, said China’s Ministry of Justice had ordered “all levels to do well in managing and controlling the lawyers”.
Rights groups and legal analysts have previously documented how Chinese authorities use “government appointed lawyers” to stop families hiring their own legal representatives in high profile cases.
One lawyer assisting one of the 12 detainees said cutting off family-hired professionals would help mainland authorities retain more control over the case.
“Eventually the defendants will be besieged and hunted by government-assigned lawyers, the police, the prosecutors and the court,” the lawyer said, requesting anonymity to speak openly.
On Saturday, family members of those detained gave an emotional press conference saying they had no idea where their relatives were being held and that lawyers had been repeatedly denied access.
James To, a veteran democratic Hong Kong lawmaker assisting the families, rejected Hua’s comments that the group were separatists and had shown no intent to enter China.
“Whatever they did was done in Hong Kong and should be tried in Hong Kong,” he told AFP.