The family of a Hong Kong teenager detained in mainland China after he tried to flee to the democratic island of Taiwan says he hasn't been allowed to see a lawyer, and that they have had scant assistance from the Hong Kong authorities.
Cheng Tsz-Ho, 18, is among 12 Hongkongers aged 16 to 33 being held on suspicion of "illegal immigration" at the Yantian Detention Center in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong.
They were intercepted by the China Coast Guard after they tried to escape by speedboat to the democratic island of Taiwan last month.
All 12 are suspected of committing crimes in Hong Kong, according to the city's security bureau, with 10 of them wanted for manufacturing or possessing explosives, arson, rioting, assaulting police officers, or possession of offensive weapons.
Cheng didn't tell his family where he was going when he joined the speedboat in a bid to smuggle himself illegally into Taiwan, and the first his family knew of his plight was from a police officer who informed them of his detention, passing on a photocopied certificate of detention "on suspicion of illegally crossing the border" on Aug. 23.
"I don't think the Hong Kong government has offered any assistance at all," Cheng's sister told RFA in a recent interview. "My father did receive several phone calls from the government, asking if they could send someone to visit my brother."
"My father asked what they could do to help, but they couldn't answer that, and they had a pretty casual attitude," she said, adding that the lawyer they tried to hire to represent her brother has been dismissed by the mainland authorities.
Detention center staff in Yantian have claimed that they are unable to verify the credentials of several lawyers hired by families in Hong Kong, and have denied them access to their clients.
At least four lawyers have been forced to relinquish their instructions in this way, RFA has learned, and not one has been allowed to meet with a client.
"Political tensions are rising in mainland China and it's getting harder and harder to find a lawyer," Cheng's sister said. "I got a lawyer, but then he quit under political pressure and referred me to a different lawyer."
Cheng said she is pursuing every avenue to keep the lawyer she hired, but expects her application to be rejected on the grounds that her brother has already been allocated a lawyer by the authorities.
Cheng's family was among several who attended a news conference to hit out at the authorities for their lack of support for the 12 detainees.
Chief executive Carrie Lam and her officials have said it is entirely appropriate to allow the mainland authorities to process their cases "according to law," given that many had "absconded" after facing criminal charges linked to the pro-democracy and anti-extradition protests.
Concerns over lack of help
But while the families have called for the return of the detainees, they have also raised concerns over the lack of assistance for those who need medical treatment, as well as the lack of visits by lawyers or relatives.
Incommunicado detention is a known risk factor for torture and other forms of mistreatment in detention, and has been linked to several high-profile torture cases in mainland China in recent years.
"It is normal for the families [of detainees] to appoint the lawyers and it is also our right," Cheng's sister said. "I don't think this counts as interfering with mainland Chinese law enforcement; that is irrelevant."
"What worries me the most is that he will be charged with separatist activity [under the new National Security Law for Hong Kong] and won't be allowed to come back here for as long as he lives," she said.
Cheng said the normally happy family is distraught and constantly on edge, waiting for news.
"I fear that there will never come another day when the whole family gathers to eat our meals together," she said.
"Sometimes I burst out crying when I see my parents," she said. "I don't even know if my brother has enough to eat."
"My mom cries a lot and has difficulty sleeping. I often dream about my brother, that he has gotten thin and has been hurt," she said. "He is 18 years old. He usually spends all of his time studying or having fun."
"I don't know how he will cope in a detention center," she said. "I am giving more media interviews so more people will know about these cases, and to stop my brother getting 'disappeared'."
"Right now, we can only take one day at a time," she said. "If the government won't help us, we will have to support ourselves."
Thousands arrested, hundreds prosecuted
Authorities in Hong Kong are bringing hundreds of protest-related prosecutions dating from the anti-extradition and pro-democracy protests that began in June 2019 on a range of charges including unlawful assembly, assault, arson, and rioting.
While thousands of people have been arrested since the movement began, a U.S. State Department report warned in March that the prosecutions of activists had infringed on the rights of Hongkongers to peaceful assembly and protest.
A Hong Kong court on Thursday convicted a man of "rioting" and common assault in connection with the siege by unarmed protesters of the Hong Kong police headquarters in June 2019.
Prosecutions under a draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong by the ruling Chinese Communist Party on July 1 are also gathering pace.
U.S.-based pro-democracy group Freedom House on Thursday said the Hong Kong protest movement was among the recipients of its 2020 Freedom Award.
"As the Chinese government has heightened repression at home and expanded efforts to export its authoritarianism abroad, Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement - a leaderless, people-led effort -has inspired the world," the group said in a statement announcing the awards.
"Beijing's sudden imposition of a repressive new national security law has made these efforts tremendously dangerous," it said. "Yet the people of Hong Kong remain committed to defending their rights for future generations in new and creative ways."
Reported by Gigi Lee for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
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