The Hong Kong government on Tuesday denied any involvement in the interception of a group of activists who tried to flee to the democratic island of Taiwan, as details emerged of the movements of two of its aircraft on the day of their arrest by the China Coast Guard.
Twelve Hongkongers aged 16 to 33 are being held in Yantian Detention Center in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen on suspicion of "illegally crossing a border," after the Chinese authorities intercepted their speedboat on its way to Taiwan on Aug. 23.
Their relatives say none of them has yet been allowed to see lawyers appointed by their families to defend them, and that there has been scant assistance from the Hong Kong government.
"I will not comment on the actual operational details except to reinforce what the police have said, which is that the police have absolutely no role to play in this particular case," chief executive Carrie Lam told a news conference on Tuesday.
Lam was responding to a query from a journalist on a news report from the Apple Daily, which showed that two government aircraft had been tracking a vessel in the vicinity at the time of the incident.
Data obtained from the flight tracking website FlightAware showed that two Hong Kong government aircraft, the fixed-wing plane B-LVB and and the H175 Cheetah helicopter B-LVH, flew around, and to and from the area where the activists were arrested on the morning of Aug. 23.
Flight records undercut claims
Hong Kong police chief Chris Tang had earlier claimed that neither police nor government officials had any knowledge of the incident as it was occurring, and that they hadn't been able to confirm the detention of the activists until they received a reply from the Guangdong police department on Sept. 25.
The Guangdong Coast Guard said in that reply that they had seized a speedboat suspected of "illegally crossing the border" in waters under its jurisdiction (21°54'00''N, 114°53'00''E) at around 9:00 a.m. on Aug. 23, and said the case was within mainland China's jurisdiction. However, no radar data was released to back up this claim.
The Hong Kong government fixed-wing aircraft's flight record showed that it left Hong Kong waters shortly after 8.00 a.m., and circled the area for 30 minutes, arriving at 22°11'96'N, 114° 75'28'E at 8.14 a.m., close to the position reported by the Guangdong Coast Guard. It returned to Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok International Airport at 8.36 a.m.
Shortly afterwards, at 9.25 a.m., the Cheetah transport helicopter B-LVB took off and flew in the direction of the speedboat's position, but disappeared from radar, before reappearing half an hour later near where the speedboat was intercepted and flying back to Chek Lap Kok, according to the flight tracking data.
Legislative Councilor and former pilot Tam Man-ho said the flight path information showed that the fixed-wing aircraft was flying in a circle towards the southeast, indicating that it was tracking a specific vessel, "because the fixed-wing aircraft was flying faster than the vessel, so it was necessary to track it in a circle."
"What they have been saying isn't true," Tam said. "The police claimed they had no knowledge of the incident, but you can see the flight path and time of the plane, which is very consistent with the 12 Hong Kong people's case."
"The plane was circling for two to three hours, which makes people wonder if they were monitoring the speedboat, and also whether this was being done at the request of the mainland Chinese authorities," he said.
"We need to know which government department requested this operation," Tam added.
Protest application rejected
RFA requested radar, video and Automatic Vessel Identification System (AVIS) data from the Hong Kong Marine Department on Sept. 28 for the area around Ninepin Islands but was refused, saying that no reports of suspicious vessels had been received on that day.
Sources said the Marine Department is only tasked with ensuring the safety of marine traffic, while the task of tracking and detecting suspicious vessels is mainly handled by Hong Kong's Marine Police, which has more sophisticated detection apparatus.
According to the Hong Kong Shipping and Port Control Regulations, any vessel leaving Hong Kong waters must apply for a Certificate of Departure. The master of the vessel is required to provide the Vessel Traffic Monitoring Center with the name of the vessel, the call signal, the current position, the port for which it is bound, not less than 15 minutes before it sails.
The government denial comes after Hong Kong police on Friday turned down an application by march organizers the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) to hold a march on Oct. 1, China's National Day in support of the 12 detainees, who police say are wanted in Hong Kong on a number of protest-related charges.
Hong Kong police have arrested thousands of people in connection with protests that swept the city throughout most of last year, on charges that rights groups and overseas officials have said undermine the city's traditional freedoms of expression and association, guaranteed by China under the terms of the 1997 handover.
Hundreds more have been arrested since July 1, when the ruling Chinese Communist Party imposed a draconian national security law on Hong Kong outlawing words and deeds deemed by the authorities to constitute separatism, subversion or terrorism, or collusion with a foreign power.
In August, the United States announced sanctions against Hong Kong leader Lam and senior Chinese and Hong Kong officials for their role in curbing the city's promised freedoms, and in implementing the national security regime, which has seen China's feared state security police set up a headquarters in the city.
Reported by Gigi Lee and Tseng Yat-yiu for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.