Twelve Hong Kong residents detained by the China Coast Guard after trying to flee an ongoing crackdown on dissent by boat are being denied access to lawyers, one lawyer who has been hired to represent one of them said on Monday.
The 12 Hongkongers are aged 16 to 33, and were held on suspicion of "illegal immigration" after they tried to escape by speedboat to the democratic island of Taiwan last month.
Hong Kong activist Andy Li – who was arrested earlier this month for alleged national security law violations – was among them, sources told RFA at the time.
Lawyer Lu Siwei, who was recently hired by the family of one of the detainees, told RFA he waited three hours at the Yantian Detention Center in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong, before being turned away on two occasions, the last of them on Friday.
Lu said detention center staff had claimed they were unable to verify that he had been instructed to act for his client.
"It was about verifying my status as an instructed lawyer and the relationship between me and my client," Lu said. "I told them this has no basis in law."
"I demanded that they show me the legal basis, but they couldn't. I think they are deliberately preventing me from meeting with [my client]," he said.
Lu said his client has been accused of organizing the bid to cross an international border illegally, which carries a jail term of two to seven years, compared with just a few months for illegally crossing a border.
"The sentence for crossing a border illegally is only regarded as a crime if there are aggravating circumstances," Lu said. "Otherwise it would be less than a year, or just administrative detention."
"But someone organizing an illegal border crossing can get two to seven years," he said.
But he said the priority for the 12 detainees' lawyers is to be allowed to meet with their clients in detention, and protect their right to due process.
Hundreds of people took to the streets of Hong Kong over the weekend to protest the postponement of elections to the city's Legislative Council (LegCo), ostensibly because of coronavirus safety concerns, and to call for the release of the 12 Yantian detainees.
Police fired pepper balls and arrested around 300 people, as well as tackling a 12-year-old girl to the ground in footage widely shared on social media.
The protest came despite warnings that shouting certain slogans, including those from last year's anti-extradition and pro-democracy movement, could result in prosecution under a draconian new security law imposed on the city by Beijing.
There are also concerns that the Chinese authorities may be refusing visits from lawyers because they are planning to charge the 12 detainees under that law, their lawyers said.
In aggravated circumstances, "organizing others to cross a border illegally" can carry a sentence of up to life imprisonment, in cases where the "smuggler" is a gang leader, or where violence was used to resist arrest.
"When I took this case, I didn't expect it to be so complicated and sensitive," said Lu, who has represented other political cases, including that of a businessman jailed for producing liquor commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
Lu has been targeting online for verbal abuse by China's "50 cent army," of commentators paid by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to support its official line on social media.
"[They were calling me] traitor, liar and supporter of independence for Hong Kong," Lu said. "It was definitely the 50-cent brigade, an organized campaign of insults."
Attorney Fan Biaowen said he had met with a similar response when hired by the relatives of another detainee to represent his client.
"I am guessing it has something to do with the implementation of the national security law in Hong Kong," Fan said. "I don't actually know why they are making such a requirement [of verification of the lawyer's status]."
"Maybe the charges are under the National Security Law for Hong Kong."
No access to lawyer
Hong Kong Police Commissioner Chris Tang said the detainees "will be dealt with according to the law," and that the city's police force is being informed of the status of their cases by the mainland Chinese authorities.
Rights attorney Ren Quanniu told Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK that he had also been denied access to his client, who is among the 12 aboard the boat caught fleeing to Taiwan.
"They said I can't prove that the instructions I have came from family members even though I have provided my client's birth certificate issued in Hong Kong," Ren, who traveled nearly 1,500 km from central China to Shenzhen to meet with his client Wong Wai-yin, told the station.
Hong Kong's mass protest movement flared up last year over plans by chief executive Carrie Lam to allow the extradition of alleged criminal suspects to face trial in mainland China's court system, which is entirely controlled by the ruling party.
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.
Reported by Gao Feng and Sing Man for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.