Twelve Hong Kong activists detained by the mainland Chinese authorities as they tried to escape to the democratic island of Taiwan by speedboat have been allocated officially approved lawyers, sparking concerns that they may have accepted the arrangement under duress.
Hong Kongâ€™s secretary for security John Lee told local media over the weekend that lawyers had been â€œselectedâ€ for them from a list provided by authorities in the southern port city of Shenzhen, just across the border in mainland China.
The 12 detainees, aged 16 to 33, are being held on suspicion of “illegal immigration”Â at the Yantian Detention Center. 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 also face criminal charges in Hong Kong, with 10 of them wanted for manufacturing or possessing explosives, arson, rioting, assaulting police officers, or possession of offensive weapons, the cityâ€™s government has said.
Lee told local media that the Hong Kong authorities arenâ€™t accorded visitation rights, as would normally be granted to overseas diplomats.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Eddie Chu said it was worrying that the detainees have effectively been allocated lawyers approved by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Sichuan-based rights lawyer Lu Siwei, who has repeatedly been refused permission to visit one of the detainees after being hired by their family to represent them, said he wasnâ€™t alone.
He said none of the lawyers hired by the Hong Kong detaineesâ€™ families had managed to meet with their clients, as of Monday.
â€œI havenâ€™t had a meeting,â€ Lu said. â€œNone of us has. We really donâ€™t know whatâ€™s happening now but we are going to keep trying.â€
â€œWe wonâ€™t keep going to the detention center because they wonâ€™t let us in, so thereâ€™s not much point, but we will lodge a formal complaint in an attempt to get the police and prosecutorâ€™s office to give us an explanation,â€ he said.
A second lawyer for one of the 12, who asked to remain anonymous, said he had been told that lawyers had been appointed on behalf of the detainees when he showed up at the Yantian Detention Center in a bid to meet with his client.
â€œThe way things are going, it seems as if they are [appointing government-approved lawyers],â€ the lawyer said. â€œThey are doing this behind closed doors, and they donâ€™t offer any explanations or information.â€
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia said the 12 Hongkongers are being subjected to the full treatment usually meted out to political cases in mainland China.
â€œWe have also experienced this and we all know what itâ€™s like,â€ Hu said. â€œThis sort of thing can destroy your mental and physical health.â€
He said the 12 detainees are likely to be made an example of by the Chinese authorities, as they have come to symbolize the entire protest movement that began last year as widespread public opposition to plans to allow extraditions to mainland China.
â€œThese detentions are being made to show tens of thousands of young people in Hong Kong [the consequences of activism],â€ Hu said. â€œThey are creating an atmosphere of terror that will make everyone think twice.â€
Pressure not to defend
Hu said the detainees are likely under huge psychological pressure from police not to try to defend themselves in court.
â€œThe Chinese police are sure to be telling them that if they make trouble [by hiring a good lawyer], there wonâ€™t be a good outcome,â€ Hu said. â€œThey will have to pay a higher price, or their relatives be punished, if they do.â€
He said there is some hope that international diplomatic pressure could affect the outcome for the Yantian detainees.
In Hong Kong, the detaineesâ€™ families have hit out at the Hong Kong authorities for failing to support them or to negotiate with the Chinese police for their return.
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam and her senior officials have said they wonâ€™t interfere with law enforcement in another jurisdiction.
The families 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.
Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFAâ€™s Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.