Hong Kong authorities on Friday confirmed that 12 of the city's residents are being held by the China Coast Guard in the southern province of Guangdong, after their boat was seized outside Hong Kong waters on Sunday.
The city's security bureau said police have been notified that 12 people aged 16 to 33 are being held by mainland Chinese authorities on suspicion of illegal immigration.
Sources had earlier told RFA the group were picked up as they tried to flee to Taiwan in a speedboat amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent and protest activities under a draconian national security law imposed on by China on July 1.
Hong Kong activist Andy Li – who was arrested earlier this month for alleged national security law violations – was among them, sources told RFA this week.
Meanwhile, authorities in the central Chinese province of Hunan are holding rights activist Xie Wenfei, who has repeatedly spoken out in support of the Hong Kong protest movement.
Xie has been held incommunicado since being taken away from his hom in Hunan's Chenzhou city on April 29, and denied visits from family members or lawyers.
Xie, also known as Xie Fengxia, was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison for "incitement to subvert state power" in 2014 after he publicly supported the 2014 pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
Since his release earlier this year, he has repeatedly criticized the ruling Chinese Communist Party for its handling of the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan in December 2019.
Forced to change lawyers
Xie's friend Ou Biaofeng said the authorities have also threatened Xie's elderly father with detention in a bid to persuade him to fire his lawyer, Ren Quanniu, and accept an attorney provided by the police.
"They forced him to revoke the lawyer's instruction by threatening to arrest his father. Then they forced his mother to sign a declaration [firing Ren]," Ou told RFA on Friday.
The move came after Ren went to the Zixing Detention Center, where Xie is being held, last week and requested a meeting with his client, but was told that any meeting would have to be approved by the police in charge of the investigation.
Ren said he is the third lawyer to be fired by Xie at the authorities' behest.
"They are trying to pass the buck and say that Xie's lawyer wasn't allowed to meet with him because the lawyer was 'uncooperative'," Ren said. "[But] they are deliberately making things difficult."
"The state security police, detention center and court handling all consider this to be a political case," Ren said. "But any criticism of the Communist Party can be considered a political case, and will usually be dealt with behind closed doors."
He said any defense offered by a government-appointed attorney would be "worse than nothing."
Xie said in a video statement recorded before his release that he would never accept a government lawyer.
"I would prefer to defend myself," he said in a statement aimed at pre-empting official claims about his case or personal safety in detention.
He added: "I would never commit suicide in detention, and I am in pretty good health right now."
Foreign journalists denied visas
The imposition of the National Security Law for Hong Kong on July 1 launched a crackdown on peaceful dissent and criticism of the government in schools and colleges, in the media and on the streets.
The law bans secessionist, subversive, and terrorist words and deeds, as well as collusion with foreign forces to interfere in Hong Kong's internal affairs, charges which carry a maximum sentence of imprisonment for life.
It covers actions or words that take place anywhere in the world, including mainland China, and has already been used to target the media with the arrest of pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai and a national security police raid on his Apple Daily newspaper on Aug. 10.
Charges of "collusion with foreign powers" appeared in the law after repeated claims from Beijing that last year's anti-government and pro-democracy protest movement was instigated by "hostile overseas forces."
Foreign journalists in Hong Kong have already been forced to leave the city after the immigration authorities denied their visa renewal application.
This week, the Hong Kong Immigration Department denied a work visa to Irish national Aaron Mc Nicholas, an editor at Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP), according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
No reason was given, and the authorities declined to respond to CPJ's requests for comment, the group said in a statement on its website.
"Denial of a work visa to a thriving local news operation bashes the most basic promise of press freedom given repeatedly by the Hong Kong government," CPJ Asia program coordinator Steven Butler said.
"It also severely undermines Hong Kong’s status as an international city and financial center, which cannot flourish unless journalists are free to do their work," Butler said.
HKFP editor-in-chief Tom Grundy said his organization wasn't the first to be affected by "unprecedented visa delays."
In July, Hong Kong authorities denied a permit to New York Times reporter Chris Buckley.
"CPJ has documented the steady erosion of press freedom in the former British colony," it said.
Reported by Gao Feng and Han Jie for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.