Beijing labelled 12 Hongkongers captured at sea while reportedly trying to flee to Taiwan last month as separatists, as Shenzhen police broke their silence to confirm on Sunday that they were under criminal detention.
The foreign ministry in Beijing declared that the group of young fugitives, some of them linked to last year’s anti-government protests, were “elements attempting to separate Hong Kong from China”, after the US State Department claimed the arrests signalled a worsening of human rights in the city.
The Yantian office of the Shenzhen public security bureau issued a statement confirming that 11 men and a woman, aged 16 to 33, had been arrested on August 23 on suspicion of crossing the border illegally.
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“They are under the compulsory measure of criminal detention in accordance with the law. Investigation of the case is under way. The public security authorities will protect the legitimate rights of the suspects in accordance with the law,” the statement said.
It was the first formal announcement on the case from authorities in mainland China.
The 12 were arrested in mainland waters after the China Coast Guard intercepted their speedboat. They were said to be heading for Taiwan to seek political asylum. At least one had been arrested under Hong Kong’s new national security law, and some had been charged with protest-related offences.
Family members of the detained said mainland lawyers they had hired had been denied access to their clients. The Shenzhen authorities told them they were already being represented by other lawyers.
The case adds to a list of flare-ups between the United States and China, with Hong Kong in the middle.
US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus wrote in a Twitter post that the arrest of the 12 “democracy activists is another sad example of the deterioration of human rights in Hong Kong”.
“Legitimate governments do not need to wall their countries in and prevent their citizens from leaving,” she wrote.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying tweeted back: “Seriously? Fact check: The 12 people were arrested for illegally crossing the border in waters. They are not democratic activists, but elements attempting to separate Hong Kong from China.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the first US official to challenge Beijing over the case, releasing a statement on Friday to express concern that the detainees had been “denied access to lawyers of their choice”.
Pompeo accused mainland authorities of withholding information on the welfare of the 12 and the charges against them, and also questioned Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s “commitment to protecting the rights of Hong Kong residents”.
That prompted China’s foreign affairs arm in Hong Kong to express its “strong disapproval of and firm opposition against the groundless remarks by some American politicians”.
The Office of the Foreign Ministry’s Commissioner in Hong Kong said in a statement: “[They] turned a blind eye to the problems at home … and showed unusual ‘concern’ about and meddled with internal affairs of other countries instead.
“We strongly urge American politicians to abide by international law and basic norms governing international relations, refrain from overreaching, manage their own affairs well, and immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs as a whole.”
Family members of some detainees had held a press conference on Saturday for the first time and complained that all attempts to reach out to them had been in vain over the past three weeks.
They said the detainees had been denied access to their chosen lawyers, and accused the Hong Kong government of being indifferent to their plight.
Two opposition lawmakers, the Democratic Party’s James To Kun-sun and Eddie Chu Hoi-dick of Council Front, along with localist activist Owen Chow Ka-shing, have been helping the families.
Hitting back at Hua’s tweet, To said he did not believe the 12 had entered the mainland to separate Hong Kong from China.
“The foreign ministry said on Saturday that China is governed in accordance with the law … Such a country should send the suspects back to Hong Kong,” he said.
Chow said a family member of one of the 12 was now “more worried” about his relative’s situation in Shenzhen after seeing Hua’s comment.
Chu said it was meaningless for the Shenzhen authorities to claim they would protect the suspects’ rights. “No one will believe those written statements until we can see the suspects with our own eyes,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the Hong Kong government said by noon on Sunday, the authorities had received requests for help from the families of 11 arrestees.
She said the 12 people were in good health. Government officers had explained to the families the channels for telling mainland authorities about the detainees’ medication needs.
Meanwhile, a Taiwanese journalist revealed that he was the major driving force in bringing five Hong Kong protesters to the island in July after they had also fled the city.
“It’s been two months since they have arrived in Kaohsiung,” Edd Jhong wrote on his Facebook page. “They do not have any channels to contact the outside world … They can’t even see lawyers who have been helping them.”
He accused the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which announced a humanitarian plan for protesters in June, of not being as supportive as it had appeared to be.
Taiwan’s semi-official Central News Agency quoted an unidentified source as saying the five who fled Hong Kong were still being detained but they were given the right to consult lawyers, and were not denied such visits as the journalist had said.
The Mainland Affairs Council was not immediately available for comment.
A source familiar with the matter said at least one of the five detained had had contact with his family.
Hong Kong’s Security Bureau said it had not received any information regarding the fugitives in Taiwan.
Additional reporting by Chris Lau and Lawrence Chung
More from South China Morning Post:
- US-China row over detention of 12 Hongkongers in Shenzhen escalates, as families seek city government’s help to bring group back
- Hongkonger arrested at sea and detained on mainland needs medication for depression, her lawyer says