Seven Hong Kong men have been jailed for seven to 10 months after they admitted to taking part in a plan to abscond to Taiwan on a speedboat in August 2020 while facing charges linked to the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests.

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This photo taken in November 2020 shows memo notes on a message board in Chinese University of Hong Kong, calling for the release of the 12 Hong Kong fugitives. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Deputy District Judge Newman Wong on Friday meted out prison terms to defendants Liu Tsz-man, 19, Cheng Tsz-ho, 20, Cheung Chun-fu, 25, Cheung Ming-yu, 23, Yim Man-him, 23, Li Tsz-yin, 32 and Kok Tsz-lun, 21, who were among 12 fugitives captured by Chinese coastguards on August 23, 2020 when they entered mainland waters illegally.

All defendants were sentenced to 10 months in jail except the eighth defendant Li Tsz-yin. He was already serving three and a half years behind bars for rioting and assaulting police, and was ordered to add seven months to his existing jail term.

“Although most defendants are young… considering the nature of the case, there is no alternative to immediate imprisonment,” Wong said.

After announcing the jail terms, Wong said he had read the mitigation pleas from the defendants and letters from their family, friends and teachers “in great detail.” He said he felt a “deep regret” to sentence the defendants, who he described as “promising youth” before they committed the crime.

District Court
District Court. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“But a country has its own laws, [and] a home has its own regulations… I hope the defendants can get back up again after [completing their sentence],” Wong said.

‘Premeditated, elaborate and organised’

The group had pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice by attempting to flee Hong Kong, which prevented and obstructed criminal investigations and prosecution. Most people on board were on bail pending trial over protest-related offences, including rioting, arson and making explosives.

In handing down his sentence on Friday, Judge Wong described the absconding plan as premeditated, elaborate and organised.

He said the escape bid involved a division of labour among a large number of people, with the defendants and their accomplices meeting in person many times.

The accused were all facing serious offences when they attempted to flee, Wong said, which could them in prison for years. The move to flee gave society an impression that the defendants “deliberately challenged” the city’s judicial system and treated it with contempt, the judge ruled.

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Pro-democracy activist Alexandra Wong holding a “Save 12” sign. Photo: Supplied.

Wong made reference to a ruling in July last year involving one of the fugitives Hoang Lam-phuc, in which a district judge set 18 months of imprisonment as the starting point of sentencing for attempting to perverting the course of justice.

Wong said on Friday that he would lower the starting point to 15 months, as the case before him was the first case Hong Kong which saw the Department of Justice pressing the perverting justice charge on defendants who attempted to flee.

The escape

The bid to escape – costing up to HK$150,000 per fugitive – was said to have involved other unnamed individuals, who arranged hideouts and speedboat driving lessons for some of the activists. They also allegedly told the would-be escapees that the Mainland Affairs Council on the self-ruled island could offer protection or asylum to self-exiled Hong Kong protesters, and help them seek permanent residence.

Activist Andy Li, who was then being investigated for allegedly conspiring with pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai to request foreign sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials, was among the fugitives as well. He is currently held in custody pending sentencing after he pleaded guilty to committing the national security offence.

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Protest scenes in Hong Kong in 2019. File photo: May James/HKFP.

Li and six of the defendants sentenced on Friday were jailed for seven months in mainland China in December 2020 after a Shenzhen court convicted them of crossing the border illegally. Their co-defendants Tang Kai-yin, who was said to have purchased and drove the vessel, and Quinn Moon, are still in prison on the mainland after they received heavier sentences of three and two years, respectively, for organising the illegal crossing.

Mainland authorities did not press charges against Liu and another fugitive – Hoang Lam-phuc – as both were minors at the time of the offence. The pair were said to have admitted wrongdoing and were handed to the Hong Kong police in December 2020 following four months of detention in Shenzhen.

In handing down the sentences on Friday, Wong took into account the months-long detention and imprisonment the seven men spent in mainland China, adding all of them could receive a one-third sentence reduction because they indicated their guilty plea “at the earliest time” upon their return.

Judge Wong’s ruling may set a precedent involving defendants seeking to flee, and helping others to flee, the city while facing criminal charges. The defence had argued that the nature of the crime was “failing to surrender to custody as shall have been appointed,” with a maximum penalty of 12 months imprisonment. But the prosecution said a more serious charge was required to reflect that the crime was “broader than just one person absconding.”

Save 12 Hong Kong Twelve
This photo taken in November 2020 shows a banner displayed in Chinese University of Hong Kong, calling for the release of the 12 Hong Kong fugitives. Photo: Studio Incendo.

The detention of the 12 Hongkongers by mainland authorities raised concerns locally and internationally over China’s opaque criminal justice system, as family members said they were unable to reach their loved ones following the arrests. Family-appointed lawyers also said they were barred from meeting their clients, and replacement representatives were chosen instead.

The Hong Kong government rejected calls for an intervention, saying they would not interfere with law enforcement in another jurisdiction. Then-chief executive Carrie Lam also denied local police involvement in the interception at sea, amid speculation that the Government Flying Service (GFS) was deployed to track the fleeing speedboat. The GFS were put under sanctions by the US authorities as a result.

Some of the defendants jailed on Friday would likely be handed additional prison time for other protest-related offences. Liu and Cheng will face sentencing on Saturday over an arson case involving petrol bombs, while Kok will be sentenced in October over charges including rioting.

Cheung Chun-fu, Cheung Ming-yu and Yim Ming-him, on the other hand, were still waiting for their explosives case to be committed to the High Court.

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.