The US on Monday called for the immediate release of the group, saying they were ‘fleeing tyranny’
A Chinese court on Wednesday jailed 10 Hong Kong democracy activists for up to three years over a bid to flee the city by speedboat to Taiwan, as a crackdown on dissent in the territory intensifies.
The group were arrested by the Chinese coastguard on August 23 en route to the self-ruled island, which has quietly opened its doors to Hongkongers seeking sanctuary.
The court in the southern city of Shenzhen sentenced Tang Kai-yin to three years in jail and Quinn Moon to two years for organizing an illegal border crossing.
The eight others were sentenced to seven months behind bars for illegally crossing the border. The 10 were also fined up to 20,000 yuan (US$3,060) in addition to their jail terms.
The sentencing follows the imposition of a sweeping new security law in Hong Kong this year that has given the government broad powers to prosecute political dissidents.
A number of activists have fled the city for overseas and political organizations have shuttered their doors as Beijing seeks to keep a lid on unrest that rocked the financial hub for months last year.
A total of 12 people were caught on the boat and have been held in custody for more than four months on the mainland.
The group were facing prosecution in Hong Kong related to last year's protests before attempting their escape.
They will likely face further charges in the city after serving their mainland sentences.
Two minors from the so-called "Hong Kong 12", aged 17 and 18, were returned to the city on Wednesday after they admitted wrongdoing, Chinese officials said. The court said it would not pursue its case against them.
In Hong Kong, the 18-year-old faces charges of conspiracy to commit arson, while the 17-year-old faces charges of attempted arson and possession of offensive weapons.
Barrister Chow Hang-tung, from the "Save 12" concern group, condemned the mainland legal process as "utterly unjust" as their families and lawyers had been kept in the dark.
"According to the state media's report, the defendants even praised the mainland's justice system, which is very absurd," Chow said.
"We can't imagine what kind of treatment they have got in the detention centre."
The 10 adults first appeared before the Shenzhen court on Monday, but the trial — like many in China's opaque legal system — was not open to foreign reporters or diplomats.
Families of the accused were only notified three days before the hearing and were unable to attend due to the short notice and Covid-19 restrictions.
Their lawyers were barred from meeting the detainees, with authorities instead appointing state-approved legal representation.
The lawyers said the sentences were too heavy and the allegation of organizing a border crossing was not substantiated.
"I think no matter he was sentenced to one day or seven months, every single day is unjust," said the father of jailed activist Cheng Tsz-ho.
According to mainland Chinese media, Tang bought the boat in August and learnt basic driving skills for the escape, while Quinn Moon was responsible for communicating with the rest of the group, urging them to tell the coastguard they were going fishing if caught.
They all pleaded guilty to the crime and signed confession papers in the presence of lawyers, said the Southern Daily, a mouthpiece of the Guangdong provincial Communist Party committee.
The United States on Monday called for the immediate release of the group, saying they were "fleeing tyranny".
"Communist China will stop at nothing to prevent its people from seeking freedom elsewhere," a US embassy spokesperson told AFP.
Amnesty International said in a statement that the group were at risk of torture serving sentences in mainland Chinese jails.
"These sentences meted out after an unfair trial lay bare the dangers faced by anybody who finds themselves tried under the Chinese criminal system," said Amnesty's Asia-Pacific regional director Yamini Mishra.
"The Chinese authorities have shown the world once again that political activists will not receive a fair trial."
China's foreign ministry said the case was handled strictly according to the law.
"The law must be abided by and those who violate the law will be held accountable," said ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin.
The new security law that now blankets Hong Kong gives authorities sweeping powers of prosecution for acts deemed terrorism, secession, subversion or collusion with foreign entities.
The city had enjoyed unique freedoms since its handover from former colonial power Britain in 1997, with a deal promising a "one country, two systems" arrangement for 50 years.
Beijing says the new security law was needed to restore peace and stability but critics have condemned it as a fatal attack on Hong Kong's freedoms.