BEIJING: A Chinese court on Wednesday sentenced 10 pro-democracy activists who sought to flee Hong Kong by speedboat earlier this year to between seven months and three years in prison.
The Yantian District Court in the southern city of Shenzhen gave the harshest sentence to one of the two accused organizers of the ill-fated Aug. 23 attempt to reach Taiwan.
The defendants are believed to have feared they would be prosecuted for their activities in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Hong Kong media reports said at least one may have had a warrant out for his arrest under a tough new national security law imposed on the semi-autonomous territory by Beijing in June.
The court said it had held a private hearing for two underaged suspects and would not charge the them for illegally crossing the border even though they pleaded guilty.
Another organizer was given two years while other participants were given seven months in prison.
Relatives of the defendants said they were prevented from hiring their own lawyers and that the accusations are politically motivated. The defendants can be sentenced to up to a year in prison for crossing the border and seven years for organizing the trip.
The sentences appear to be a warning to opposition activists against trying to evade provisions of the national security law.
Hong Kong has already frozen assets and issued arrest warrants for several government opponents who have fled abroad, including to the United Kingdom, which governed the territory until the handover to Chinese rule in 1997.
Hong Kong was promised it would be allowed to maintain its separate political, economic and social systems for 50 years following the handover, including considerably greater freedoms of speech and protest than permitted in mainland China. Critics say Chinese moves, including the imposition of the national security law, widespread arrests of critics and the cancellation of elections for the Legislative Council, have all but nullified that pledge.