The U.S. administration is “deeply concerned” about the dozen Hong Kong activists held in China for weeks since they were caught fleeing to Taiwan, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Sept. 11.
The 12 Hongkongers were arrested by Chinese coast guards about three weeks ago in Chinese waters off the coast of southern Guangdong Province. They were on a boat reportedly en-route to Taiwan where they were going to seek asylum.
At least one of the activists had previously been arrested for violating the city’s new national security law imposed by Beijing. Local pro-democracy politicians and their relatives have criticized the lack of legal protections in mainland China, and appealed for help in their plight.
Pompeo, the first U.S. official to take a public stance on the issue, said he was disturbed to hear the activists are being deprived of access to lawyers.
“We question Chief Executive Lam’s stated commitment to protecting the rights of Hong Kong residents, and call on authorities to ensure due process,” Pompeo said on Friday, referring to the city’s leader Carrie Lam. He added that there has been scant information about their case and the official charges against them.
A spokesperson at Chinese foreign ministry’s Hong Kong office, without naming Pompeo, responded with “strong disapproval” in a statement on Saturday and demanded that the U.S. politicians “immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs.”
In Hong Kong, the families of the detained activists appeared at a press conference on Saturday in their first public appeal. Donning hats and masks to shield their identity, some tearful and sobbing, they pleaded for their detained relatives to be allowed to consult lawyers of their choice and for a chance to talk with them.
The youngest being held is 16. Several also need medication, including one with asthma and skin allergies, the relatives said.
“These 20 days were very tough for us,” said mother of 29-year-old arrestee Li Tsz-yin. “I don’t know if he’s safe or alive,” she said, adding that she hopes authorities could soon provide more information about what’s going on and allow the activists to return to Hong Kong.
Asked earlier this week by reporters on whether the government will seek to bring back the detainees from mainland, Lam said that if they “were arrested for breaching mainland offenses, then they have to be dealt with according to the mainland laws.”
A number of mainland Chinese lawyers hired by the activists’ families said that Chinese officials have warned them to stay off the case.
Ren Quanniu, a human rights lawyer from central China’s Henan Province, said that the Zhongyuan District Judicial Bureau in Zhengzhou, the provincial capital, called him twice on Sept. 9 demanding him to withdraw from the case, going so far as to accuse him of “not being patriotic.”
“It was as if our lives were at stake. They made it sound really scary,” Ren said, according to Hong Kong reports. He did not relent to the official’s pressure.
Ren said that the Hongkongers are likely to face charges for illegally crossing the border, but added that the allegations could change.
Another lawyer hired by the families, Lu Siwei, from southwestern Sichuan Province, said he was denied a meeting with his client because the authorities had chosen another two lawyers for the detained activist.
An official from Sichuan’s judicial bureau told Lu that this was a significant case for “maintaining social stability” and was overseen by the central government, Lu told Hong Kong media.
The Yantian Detention Center in the southern city of Shenzhen, where the activists are held, similarly denied lawyer Ji Zhongjiu, of eastern China’s Zhejiang Province, from visiting Li. An official from the center claimed over the phone that Li had appointed two lawyers on his own, andl hung up on Ji when he tried to seek further information.
At least three Shenzhen-based lawyers hired by the families have been forced by authorities to withdraw from the cases, Hong Kong media reported.
James To, a Hong Kong lawyer and local Democratic Party legislator, said that these detained activists’ legal right to representation has been undermined.
“It’s very unusual that the mainland lawyers appointed by their relatives, their family members, are persuaded to withdraw from those cases,” he said at the news conference where the relatives appeared.