Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have indicted 12 Hong Kong protesters detained as they fled to Taiwan on charges relating to "illegally crossing a border," the state prosecutor's office said in a statement on Wednesday.
In a notice posted to its official account on the social media platform WeChat, the Yantian District People’s Procuratorate in Guangdong's Shenzhen city announced the indictment of Quinn Moon and Tang Kai-yin, for "organizing an illegal border crossing," which carries a maximum penalty of seven years' imprisonment.
A further eight suspects including Li Tsz-yin, Andy Li, Wong Wai-yin, and Kok Tsz-lun, have been indicted for "illegally crossing a border," the statement said.
"A public prosecution has been filed at the Yantian District People's Court in Shenzhen," it said, adding that two detainees under the age of 18 at the time of their detention would have their cases heard behind closed doors.
The charge of "illegally crossing a border" carries a maximum jail term of one year, and recent unconfirmed media reports have suggested that at least some of the detainees may be sent home after receiving sentences equal to time already served, ahead of Lunar New Year.
The detainees were aged 16 to 33 when they were intercepted by the China Coast Guard as they tried to flee to Taiwan by speedboat.
However, if they are returned to Hong Kong soon, they still face charges linked to months of mass popular protest that rocked the city last year, either under public order legislation or the draconian national security law imposed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party on Hong Kong from July 1.
Lawyers warned not to help
The move toward a trial comes after the Shenzhen authorities issued a ban on lawyers appointed by the families of the 12 activists detained by the China Coast Guard on Aug. 23, and repeatedly prevented them from meeting with defense attorneys appointed by their families.
Five law firms said they had received verbal orders from the Yantian district bureau of judicial affairs to stop acting for the families of the 12 detainees, with officials saying that the orders came from the ministry of justice in Beijing.
Any lawyer hired to act on behalf of the 12 activists has been ordered to stop doing so, often by repeated phone calls from judicial bureau officials to their personal number, according to multiple sources.
Hong Kong's government has declined to press the Shenzhen authorities for the 12 detainees' release, on the grounds that they are already fugitives.
Flight data also showed government aircraft in the area during their detention, contradicting the Hong Kong authorities' claim to have had no involvement in the operation, prompting protests by pro-democracy activists and relatives of the 12 detainees in October.
Data obtained from the flight tracking website FlightAware showed that two Hong Kong government aircraft, the fixed-wing plane B-LVB 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.
But the city's Government Flying Service rejected calls to make its operational data public, government broadcaster RTHK reported, saying it wasn't "usual practice" to do so.