The authorities in Shenzhen have confirmed that 12 Hongkongers – who were intercepted whilst trying to flee by boat to Taiwan – are under criminal detention. It is the first official update in the 20 days since their arrest, with a Chinese spokesperson claiming on Sunday that the detainees are “separatists.”

The Yantian division of Shenzhen’s public security bureau announced on Weibo that the group are currently being held under compulsory criminal detention measures after they allegedly crossed the border illegally.

12 hongkongers shenzhen yantian criminal detention
Photo: Yantian Public Security Division of the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau, via Weibo.

“The investigation of the case is under process, the public security bureau will protect the suspects’ legitimate rights in accordance with the law,” the post on Sunday read.

On August 23, the group boarded a speedboat in Sai Kung to Taiwan’s Kaohsiung, but was stopped by the Guangdong Maritime Police in a contiguous region of China’s maritime territory.

Since September 4, lawyers appointed by the detainees’ family were repeatedly denied access to their clients by Yantian District Detention Centre officers. Some were told that their clients had appointed other lawyers.

Hong Kong assistance

Some family members of the detainees – together with pro-democracy lawmakers Eddie Chu, James To and activist Owen Chow – held a press conference on Saturday to urge the authorities to let the lawyers meet their loved ones. They rejected the idea of government-assigned lawyers.

Local broadcaster RTHK cited the Hong Kong Immigration Department as saying that the twelve were physically well and have hired mainland lawyers to represent them.

Immigration Tower wanchai
Immigration Tower. File photo: In-Media via C.C.2.0

It said that the Immigration Department’s Assistance to Hong Kong Residents Unit of the and the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Guangdong have received requests for help from family members of 10 of the detainees.

The Department said it had also issued a certificate to prove a family member’s relationship with a detainee in order to facilitate the process of appointing lawyers. It suggested that family members may submit written requests in case of any medication needs.

‘Secessionist’ detainees

On Sunday, before the official update about their status was published, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying accused the 12 Hongkongers of being “secessionist.” In a tweet, she hit out at the US Department of State Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus who said the case represented deteriorating human rights in Hong Kong.

“They are not democratic activists, but elements attempting to separate #HongKong from China,” Hua claimed, without citing a source or evidence.

Hua Chunying
Hua Chunying. File photo: GovCN.

Under the newly enacted national security law, secession carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. The law also criminalises subversion, foreign interference and interference with transportation and other infrastructure.

Eddie Chu wrote on Facebook that Hua’s accusations indicate that the group may serve as diplomatic bargaining chips: “From China’s illegitimate rejection of lawyers, it is foreseeable that the authorities have defined the matter as a highly sensitive political case which may be used as ‘anti-Hong Kong independence propaganda,” the post read.

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Rachel Wong previously worked as a documentary producer and academic researcher. She has a BA in Comparative Literature and European Studies from the University of Hong Kong. She has contributed to A City Made by People and The Funambulist, and has an interest in cultural journalism and gender issues.