Hong Kongers who fled by sea are held without legal access in China, families say
By Shibani Mahtani September 14 at 11:14 pm AET A boat sails out of Sai Kung in Hong Kong on Sept. 4. Twelve Hong Kongers were intercepted by Chinese authorities and remain in detention on the mainland after trying to flee to Taiwan by boat. (Jerome Favre/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock) HONG KONG — In mid-August, 19-year-old Kok Tsz-Lun told a girl he was pursuing that she would not have to deal with his bad jokes or advances again. Cheng Tsz-Ho, 17, told his father he was going fishing, brandishing a rod and two buckets before leaving home. Over meals with his family, Lee Tsz-yin, 29, chatted and laughed as if nothing was amiss. That was the last that relatives and friends heard from the three, who were among a dozen Hong Kong activists intercepted at sea by Chinese authorities while trying to flee to Taiwan on a speedboat. More than three weeks since their detention, those closest to them say they fear for their health, safety and mental state and are distressed they have been held incommunicado and without access to private lawyers. Kok, a Portuguese national, has been denied consular access, according to his Hong Kong lawyer and the Portuguese consul general in Macao, who is seeking clarity on the teenager’s condition. “We are trying to obtain further information from the Chinese authorities, noting that Mr. Kok is also a Chinese national,” the consul general, Paulo Cunha Alves, said in an email. On July 1, China implemented an authoritarian national security law aimed at stifling dissent and protests in Hong Kong, breaking its treaty with Britain. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post) The activists’ families are pressing Hong Kong’s government to guarantee their loved ones’ return to the city, which is supposed to have its own legal system separate from that in mainland China, and for the 12 to be able to speak to their families and lawyers of their choice. [Hong Kong refugees captured at sea spent months plotting daring dash to freedom] On Sunday, the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau’s Yantian branch said the 12, seized by the Guangdong coast guard on Aug. 23, were in its custody and suspected of illegally crossing the border. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, in a tweet the same day, described them as “elements attempting to separate [Hong Kong] from China” — raising the specter of severe penalties, including life in prison. Hua was responding to a statement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said he was “deeply disturbed” that the Hong Kongers were denied their choice of lawyers. The activists, all of whom were previously arrested on charges related to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, were the latest to flee the city in hopes of starting a new life free of political persecution in Taiwan. Their ages range from 16 to 33. In response to questions from The Washington Post, a representative for the Hong Kong government referred to an article written by the city’s security chief John Lee, confirming the detention of the 12 Hong Kong residents in mainland China. The Hong Kong government “does not want foreign jurisdictions to interfere with the law enforcement of the [Hong Kong] special administrative region, so it respects and will not interfere with the law enforcement of other jurisdictions,” Lee said. Since late last year, some Hong Kong protesters arrested in the 2019 uprising have sought to escape by boat because bail conditions or passport seizures have prevented them from leaving by regular means. In an earlier statement, the Hong Kong police said that 11 of the 12 were barred from leaving the city under court orders and that they were involved in cases including attempted arson, possession of offensive weapons, rioting and possession of explosives. Some 10,000 have been arrested since the pro-democracy protests began in June 2019. Relatives of 12 Hong Kong activists detained at sea by Chinese authorities attend a news conference in Hong Kong on Saturday. (Kin Cheung/AP) One, activist Andy Li, was arrested under Hong Kong’s new national security law, which criminalizes broadly worded offenses such as collusion with a foreign power and secession. Boats continued to depart for Taiwan after the law passed in late June, as more feared political persecution and heavy jail sentences, but have stopped since the 12 activists were intercepted last month, according to people familiar with the matter, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of legal repercussions. This past weekend, relatives of several of the detainees held an emotional news conference where they appealed to the Hong Kong government to ensure their loved ones’ safety. Accompanied by two pro-democracy lawmakers and a prominent local activist, the relatives donned windbreakers with the hoods pulled over their heads, sunglasses, surgical masks and hats to disguise their identities. “I’ve been having nightmares in which my husband is jailed, bald, his face dirty with the stubble of a growing beard and looking at me helplessly,” said one woman, who identified herself as the wife of Wong Wai-yin, 29, who was charged in Hong Kong with plotting to make an explosive and was released on bail before he fled. She spoke in Mandarin. “I just hope my husband can return soon.” [They fought for freedom in Hong Kong. Now, they must find it in exile.] The Post separately interviewed a confidante of Kok’s, who described him as a sweet and cheerful person who had a troubled relationship with his parents. “He loves to make jokes, he was always good at pleasing people around him,” the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, citing safety concerns. “I miss him so much, I just want his safe return back to Hong Kong.” Kok’s lawyer, who acknowledged that the teenager must face trial in mainland China, described the situation as increasingly desperate. “Our demand is very humble,” said the lawyer, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety. “We only ask that he get to speak with his family and lawyer, and that we can ensure he is safe and not injured, without any inhumane treatment.” Human rights lawyers in mainland China have been trying to get access to the detained Hong Kongers, to no avail. Lu Siwei, a lawyer from Sichuan province, said he tried three times to access his client after he was contacted by the detainee’s family in Hong Kong. He was rebuffed each time, warned against pursuing the case and later summoned by the Justice Department in Sichuan, he said. “Although he was just accused of a common crime, I feel like there is something uncommon behind this case,” he said in an interview. Lu said that he will bring his case to higher levels of government, including the Guangdong provincial government or even the Beijing Supreme Court, if the Yantian detention center in Shenzhen continues to bar him access. “There should not be a problem,” he said. Subsequent calls to Lu have not been answered, and his Weibo microblogging page has not been updated since last week. Nick Aspinwall in Taipei, Taiwan, and Tiffany Liang and Ryan Ho Kilpatrick in Hong Kong contributed to this report.