China’s Ministry of Justice has ordered at least five lawyers to terminate their appointments with the Hongkongers who were detained in Shenzhen after being intercepted by coast guards.

The lawyers appointed by detainees’ families in Hong Kong have repeatedly been denied access to their clients in Yantian District Detention Centre. Last Thursday, five lawyers visited the detention centre but were again refused meetings with the detainees, as the officer at reception said two lawyers had already been assigned to the clients.

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Lawyers in front of Yantian Police Station. Photo: Liang Xiaojun.

Lu Siwei – one of the human rights lawyers working on the case – earlier said that he suspected they were the state-appointed lawyers, but there was no means to confirm it. The authorities have refused to divulge their identities, or to disclose further information, he said.

According to China’s Provisions on Legally Protecting Lawyers’ Practicing Rights, the lawyers have the right to verify in face-to-face meetings with their clients that they have appointed other lawyers. Lawyers also questioned whether it is legally possible for the youngest among the 12 – 16-year-old Hoang Lam Phuc – to appoint his own lawyer as he is a minor.

They subsequently filed complaints against the detention centre for unlawful acts but no one picked up the phone at the procuratorate and their complaints remained unanswered.

Pressure on lawyers

On Tuesday, activists familiar with the matter told reporters in a group chat that lawyers and law firms had received a verbal warning from various levels of justice bureaus. They said that that lawyers should not represent the clients in this case.

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Los Angeles, USA rally for the “Hong Kong 12.” Photo: We The Hongkongers.

At least five lawyers who have been appointed were warned that they must drop out of the case; the officials added that the warning came directly from the Ministry of Justice.

Lu said all the lawyers appointed by detainees’ family members were facing different degrees of pressure from the Chinese authorities, with no exceptions.

The 12 Hongkongers boarded a speedboat in Sai Kung on August 23 to Taiwan, but were intercepted by coast guards in waters contiguous to China’s territorial sea for allegedly illegally crossing the border.

Activists previously speculated that Hong Kong police plotted the arrest after discovering a flight record which noted a police operation with the Government Flying Service in the early morning on the day of the arrests. The authorities have denied the accusation.

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Manchester, UK rally for the “Hong Kong 12.” Photo: We The Hongkongers.

After 39 days of detention in Shenzhen without news about the detainees’ conditions, on September 30 the People’s Procuratorate of Yantian District approved the arrest of ten detainees under the charge of illegal border crossing.

If convicted, they may be sentenced for to up to a year of fixed-term imprisonment and criminal detention or control, according to Article 322 of the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China.

Two other detainees – Quinn Moon and Tang Kai-yin – face more serious charges of helping others to escape and may be sentenced to two to seven years in prison, or a maximum penalty of life imprisonment under exceptionally serious circumstances, under Article 318.

On October 10, Hong Kong police arrested nine people on suspicion of assisting the group to escape. Family members of the 12 voiced concerns that detainees might have been tortured in Yantian to extract information that helped with the latest arrests.

Lu previously told AFP the period of “detention for investigation” could last up to seven months.

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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.