The US called for the “immediate release” of a group of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists as their trials began in China on Monday for trying to escape the territory by speedboat during a crackdown on dissent by Chinese forces.
Known as the “Hong Kong 12,” the 10 adults and two minors were attempting to flee Hong Kong for Taiwan last Wednesday when their boat was intercepted by the Chinese coast guard and they were taken into custody.
“Their so-called ‘crime’ was to flee tyranny,” a spokesperson at the US consulate in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou said.
Saying, “Communist China will stop at nothing to prevent its people from seeking freedom elsewhere,” the consulate called for their “immediate release.”
Ten of the dozen are facing charges linked to illegal border crossing and two face additional charges of organizing the escape trial.
The two minors face a separate hearing at another time.
To cross the South China Sea to Taiwan, they would have had to pass through Chinese controlled waters.
A spokesperson for the Yantian District People’s Court in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong, said the trials began as scheduled.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian shrugged off the US’ call for them to be released as interfering in China’s “judicial sovereignty.”
“The people concerned are suspected of illegally crossing or organizing others to cross the border and are being prosecuted according to the law,” he said at a daily briefing Monday.
Beijing in June instituted a harsh national security law in Hong Kong that gives China additional powers to clampdown on dissent that critics say is intended to wipe out free speech.
The “Hong Kong 12” fled because they feared they would be prosecuted for their involvement in past pro-democratic protests and one of the group may have had a warrant out for his arrest, according to Hong Kong media reports.
Relatives of the group say the accusations are political and the 12 have been prevented from hiring their own lawyers.
They said they were informed on Friday that the trials would begin Monday.
Members of the group can be sentenced up to a year in prison for crossing the border and seven years for organizing the trip.
With Post wires
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