Six of the 12 Hong Kong activists captured by the Chinese coastguard in August 2020 while trying to flee to Taiwan by speedboat have pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice.
The six aged between 19 and 25 admitted to obstructing a criminal investigation and prosecution by joining a plan to abscond to Taiwan on August 23, 2020, while they were facing charges linked to the 2019 anti-extradition bill unrest.
Defendants Cheng Tsz-ho, 20, Cheung Chun-fu, 25, Cheung Ming-yu, 23, Yim Man-him, 23 and Kok Tsz-lun, 21, were among eight people jailed for seven months on the mainland in December 2020 for crossing the border illegally. Liu Tsz-man, 19, on the other hand, was one of the two minor fugitives who were not prosecuted by the mainland authorities after they admitted wrongdoing. He was handed to the Hong Kong police in December 2020.
Other individuals on the speedboat included activist Andy Li, who was then under investigation for an alleged conspiracy involving pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai to request foreign sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials. He is currently held in custody pending sentencing, after he pleaded guilty to the foreign collusion offence under the Beijing-imposed national security law.
Another two fugitives, Tang Kai-yin and Quinn Moon, who were convicted of organising the illegal crossing, are still in prison on the mainland after a court there imposed heavier sentences of three and two years, respectively.
HK$150k plan to abscond
On Thursday, Acting Assistant Director of Public Prosecutions (Special Duties) Andy Lo revealed details of the plan, saying the accomplices communicated on Telegram and other messaging apps and met in person many times to discuss the scheme.
“They discussed how to flee from Hong Kong to Taiwan via the sea route, such as riding on a cargo ship. Eventually they decided to let Tang Kai-yin buy a vessel for them to abscond, because that would be their best shot,” Lo told the court.
The prosecutor said there was a division of labour among the fugitives and other people involved in the plan. Some unnamed individuals, who were only identified by pseudonyms, were said to have found people to cover the cost of fleeing of around HK$150,000 for some of the fugitives. Some defendants paid the sum themselves, while others borrowed the money.
Lo said some of the unidentified individuals mentioned in the case had fled Hong Kong, while he could not disclose further details of the others, citing an ongoing investigation.
Some activists told police they were asked to bring their birth certificates, academic records and court documents such as bail forms to Taiwan, so that personnel from the Mainland Affairs Council would be able to identify them as protesters in self-exile. They were told that the Taiwanese government agency for handling matters linked to China could offer protection or asylum, and help them seek permanent residence.
The unnamed individuals also arranged for some defendants to take speedboat driving lessons in Tai Po in early August 2020. One of the fugitives had stayed in “safehouses” in Kowloon and the New Territories since April 2020, around four months before the group fled the city.
On August 23, 2020, Liu and Cheng boarded a speedboat in Sai Kung with Tang, who then drove the vessel to Po Toi O, a small fishing village on the Clear Water Bay Peninsula, to pick up the others, the court heard.
The other batch of fugitives were taken to Po Toi O by a driver who was also described as an accomplice. According to the prosecution, they moved supplies including gasoline onto the speedboat and set sail to the self-ruled island. But they were intercepted by Chinese marine police when they entered mainland waters illegally.
The detention of the 12 Hongkongers by mainland authorities sparked widespread concern in the city, after family members said they were unable to reach their loved ones following the arrests.
They urged the Hong Kong government to press China to return the detained activists to the city, but local officials said they would not interfere.
Family-appointed lawyers also said they were denied access to their clients and alternative representatives were chosen instead. Some mainland Chinese lawyers who handled the case at the request of families later saw their legal licences revoked.
Perverting the course of justice
In mitigation, defence lawyers on Thursday argued that the nature of the crime was “failing to surrender to custody as shall have been appointed,” punishable by up to 12 months in prison. The prosecution, however, decided to charge their clients with perverting the course of justice, which carried a much heavier penalty.
Prosecutor Lo admitted that the present case would set a precedent which involved defendants helping themselves and others to flee the city while facing criminal charges. He argued that the offence committed was “broader than just one person absconding,” and therefore warranted a more serious charge.
The defence lawyers also said their clients played minor roles in the scheme. Deputy District Judge Newman Wong said that while the evidence did not point to an “initiator,” it was undeniable that the defendants had “actively participated” in the plan.
The speedboat escape also involved teenager Hoang Lam-phuc. He was not included in Thursday’s hearing as he was sentenced to a training centre in July last year over his bid to flee, and for arson and possessing items with intent to damage property.
Another defendant Wong Kai-yin was also excluded from Thursday’s hearing after he was jailed for 20 months in May for making explosives.
Li Tsz-yin was absent from Thursday’s hearing as he was under quarantine for being a close contact to a Covid-19 patient in prison. The court will hear his plea on Friday morning, and the judge said he may hand down sentences on the group in the afternoon.
Correction 15.7.2022: a previous version of this article incorrectly identified defendant Liu Tsz-man as one of the eight people jailed for seven months on the mainland in December 2020 for crossing the border illegally. He was among two minor fugitives who were not prosecuted by the mainland authorities and was handed to the Hong Kong police in December 2020. We regret this error.
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