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Politics

10 Hong Kong activists jailed in China after attempt to flee

Two minors transferred back to city amid international calls for release

One of 12 Hong Kong activists detained in mainland China on allegations of illegal border crossing is seen after a transfer conducted at Shenzhen Bay Port in Hong Kong on Dec. 30.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- Ten Hong Kong pro-democracy activists were sentenced on Wednesday to between seven months and three years in prison in mainland China following their attempt this past summer to flee the city by speedboat, as authorities continued to step up their crackdown on political dissent in the territory.

The 10 also have been ordered to pay fines of 10,000 to 20,000 yuan (about $1,500 to $3,000) on top of their jail terms.

Meanwhile, two others in the group -- both minors -- were handed back to Hong Kong on Wednesday morning after Chinese authorities decided not to prosecute them, a mainland court ruled.

All 12 defendants, aged 17 to 33, faced charges of illegally crossing the border, while two faced additional charges of organizing the attempt, according to an indictment issued in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, where the hearing took place.

The judgments were made based on their "offenses, consequences, performance of repentance and sentencing recommendations of the prosecutors," the Yantian District People's Court said in a statement, adding that all defendants had previously pleaded guilty to the charges.

Relatives of the Hong Kong activists attend a press conference in the territory on Dec. 28.   © AP

In mainland China, illegally crossing the border carries a maximum penalty of one-year imprisonment, while organizers face up to seven years in jail, although some cases can result in life terms.

The defendants were not permitted to appoint lawyers of their choice, and their family members have had no access to them while they were in custody. The families said they only received phone calls from court-appointed lawyers days before the trial began.

"The unfair court proceedings [are] evidence of an obvious, draconian political persecution," the 12 Hongkongers Concern Group, which represents the families, said in a statement released on Monday.

The closed-door hearing, which started on Monday amid heavy security around the court, has attracted international attention. Western countries have called for the "immediate release" of the activists.

A group of diplomats from the U.K., the U.S., Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and Canada were unable to observe the trial after being told that the court's public gallery was "full."

Mainland authorities, however, maintained that it was an open trial attended by the defendants' family members, journalists and delegates -- without offering specific names -- to the People's Political Consultative Conference of Shenzhen and the National People's Congress.

In an interview published on Wednesday in the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily -- owned by the Communist Party -- several defendants said they had received "fair and just treatment" in mainland China and have "reflected upon their grave mistakes."

Known as the "Hong Kong 12," the group was stopped and detained by the Chinese Coast Guard on Aug. 23 as they apparently headed for Taiwan.

The activists are believed to have fled the former British colony out of fear that they would be prosecuted for their past activities in support of the Hong Kong democratic movement.

Andy Li, one of the activists aboard the boat, was arrested under the national security law in August and has been wanted by Hong Kong police after jumping bail on that charge.

Since Beijing imposed the sweeping security law on the semi-autonomous territory on June 30, a number of high-profile pro-democracy activists and politicians have gone into exile in such countries as the U.S. and the U.K.

The security legislation carries criminal penalties for acts involving secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces. Suspects can be extradited to mainland China for trial and sentenced for up to life imprisonment if convicted.

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