Hong Kong activists have staged a protest over the detention of fleeing fugitives in mainland China while accusing local air police of tailing the group before their capture.

Family members of the 12 Hongkongers held in Shenzhen demonstrated outside the Government Flying Service (GFS) headquarters on Lantau Island on Thursday afternoon, alongside pro-democracy activists Owen Chow, Joshua Wong, ex-lawmaker Eddie Chu and Tsuen Wan District Councillor Lester Shum.

hong kong twelve flying service
Photo: RTHK screenshot.

They claimed Hong Kong police conducted aerial surveillance on the group, citing flight records allegedly leaked from the GFC Integrated Application System which depicted a fixed-wing aircraft operating from 4:10 am to 8:45 am on August 23. The mission was recorded as “P-OPS,” which the activists alleged stood for “Police Operations.” The force has denied collaborating with mainland authorities.

Wong claimed the document proved both police and flying service were aware of the fugitive’s plan to flee the city beforehand: “They just wished to set the trap and let all those 12 protesters [to be] not arrested by Hong Kong police but just locked up in mainland China.”

government flying service hong kong 12
Photo: Joshua Wong, via Facebook.

Ahead of the gathering at 4 pm, dozens of police officers were deployed in the area and sealed off parts using cordon tape. An officer asked the group to disperse and accused them of violating the Covid-19 gathering ban on more than four people.

Protesters nonetheless raised placards reading: “47 days since they went missing. No news of 12” and “CCP-HKG collusion proved. Release 12 [Hongkongers] now.”

hong kong twelve flying service joshua wong owen chow
Joshua Wong and Owen Chow. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Twelve Hongkongers boarded a speedboat at Po Toi O pier in Sai Kung en route to Kaoshiung in Taiwan at around 7 am in August. They were intercepted by Guangdong Coast Guard and arrested on suspicion of illegally crossing the border. They are currently detained in Yantian District Detention Centre.

hong kong twelve flying service
Photo: Stand News.

Dai Evans, an ex-GFS flight operations manager who retired last November, told HKFP that the service would be called upon to conduct covert operations but “GFS had no direct contact with Mainland Authorities, all request for assistance came from the Hong Kong Police or Customs or Immigration.”

Lawyers denied access

The People’s Procuratorate of Yantian District approved the arrests last week. Two of the detainees – Tang Kai-yin and Quinn Moon – are facing more serious charges of organising the operation.

Family-appointed lawyers said they have been repeatedly denied access to the detainees, leading some to speculate they were replaced by “state-appointed” lawyers.

flying service hong kong 12
“Restore the truth. Release my husband.” “Restore the truth. Release my son,” “It is evident that they colluded to send protesters to China. Release 12 Hongkongers immediately,” the placards read. Photo: Joshua Wong, via Facebook.

On Monday, Apple Daily published records from flight-tracking website FlightAware data which reported to show GFS fixed-wing aircraft “B-LVB” taking off from Hong Kong International Airport at 4:19 am and circling the waters around Sai Kung, Tung Lung Chau and Kwo Chau Island for three hours on August 23.

Evans told HKFP that, despite tracks on the flight tracking app, “Role Training flights” are carried out during the daytime and tracking a small vessel is only possible if an accurate start location is known: “The high volume of traffic in the Hong Kong area would make a random search extremely protracted… The Vessel Tracking Service operated by the Marine Department has radars around Hong Kong that are used primarily for safety at sea. These radars however are capable of detecting small vessels in Hong Kong waters on ‘primary’ radar returns – GFS involvement therefore would not be essential.”

He added that radar tracks mean nothing without positive evidence of intent.

government flying service hong kong 12 august 23
A graph claimed to be the Government Flying Service flight record on August 23, 2020. Photo: Save 12 HK Youths, via Facebook.

In a Hong Kong Economic Journal interview, published on Wednesday, Secretary for Security John Lee – who oversees both the GFS and police force – dismissed the Apple Daily report. He said Hong Kong society has been overwhelmed with information which has muddied the waters.

Ahead of her weekly Executive Council meeting on Tuesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam also denied local police involvement in the operation.

Correction 20/10: This report was updated to better represent and contextualise quotes shared by Dai Evans.

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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.