HONG KONG — A group of Hong Kong protesters who were arrested by the mainland Chinese authorities while fleeing the city by speedboat were sentenced to prison in a mainland court on Wednesday, in the Chinese Communist Party’s latest offensive against pro-democracy activists who have sought to challenge its rule.
Eight of the protesters, who were charged with illegally crossing a boundary, were sentenced to seven months imprisonment. Two others, Tang Kai-yin, 31, and Quinn Moon, 33, who were charged with the more serious offense of organizing the escape attempt, received three and two years, respectively.
The protesters also received fines of 10,000 to 20,000 yuan, about $1,500 to $3,000.
Two other defendants, who were juveniles at the time of their arrest, pleaded guilty in a closed-door hearing and were not subsequently charged, according to a statement on Wednesday from prosecutors in the mainland city of Shenzhen, where the activists were being held. The Hong Kong police said on Wednesday that they would receive custody of two unnamed defendants from the mainland authorities.
The 12 protesters were caught in August by the Chinese Coast Guard, about 45 miles southeast of Hong Kong Island, while trying to flee to Taiwan. Many Hong Kongers who oppose Beijing have sought refuge in Taiwan in recent months, especially since June, when the central government imposed a harsh new national security law on Hong Kong that many believe has smothered the city’s prized civil liberties.
One of the captured protesters, Andy Li, was being investigated under the new law at the time of his escape attempt.
The case of the 12 activists — who have been dubbed the “Hong Kong youths” by supporters at home, though they range in age from 17 to 33 — has come to embody many antigovernment protesters’ fears about the central government’s continuing encroachment on Hong Kong, a former British colony that was promised 50 years of relative autonomy when it was returned to China in 1997.
Because the detainees were held and tried on the mainland, they were denied access to lawyers selected by their relatives, according to a group that represents family members. They were also not charged with any crime until this month, more than three months after their capture.
Wednesday’s sentencing, in Yantian District People’s Court in the city of Shenzhen, further laid bare the differences between the mainland’s legal system, which is opaque and often used to silence dissidents, and Hong Kong’s system, which follows common-law principles.
No relatives of the defendants were present for the trial, which lasted two days, according to family members in Hong Kong, even though the Shenzhen court said in a statement that some relatives had attended. The family members were notified of the trial date only three days in advance.
Nor was the trial open to observers, despite requests from the family and some foreign diplomats. (Shenzhen officials reportedly said that the courtroom was full.)
According to reports in China’s state-controlled news media, the 10 protesters pleaded guilty in hopes of receiving a lighter sentence.
In a statement on Monday, after the trial opened, the group of family members said the court proceedings were “evidence of an obvious, draconian political persecution.
“The families of the 12 have been in great agony throughout their detention,” the statement continued. “They are now only asking for the safety of their children and their earliest return to Hong Kong.”
The case also drew condemnation from overseas governments that have been critical of China’s crackdown on Hong Kong. A spokesperson for the United States Embassy in China called for the activists’ “immediate release,” adding in a statement on Monday that “their so-called ‘crime’ was to flee tyranny.”
A spokesperson for the European Union said the defendants’ rights to a fair trial had “not been respected.” And Dominic Raab, the British foreign secretary, said that he was “deeply concerned” by the proceedings.
In response to the accusations, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, said that the United States should “immediately stop interfering in China’s internal affairs and judicial sovereignty.”
The authorities in Hong Kong have also been prosecuting protesters. On Tuesday, Tony Chung, a 19-year-old student activist, was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment for unlawful assembly and insulting the national flag.