China’s efforts to pressure lawyers representing Hong Kong detainees, explained

China’s efforts to pressure lawyers representing Hong Kong detainees, explained
Source: Tyrone Siu, Reuters

Last month, on August 23, Chinese authorities detained a dozen Hong Kong activists attempting to flee the country by boat to Taiwan in an effort to seek a safe-haven amid the Chinese Communist Party’s tightening grip on the semi-autonomous region.

Those on board were believed to be fleeing prosecution for alleged crimes associated with last year’s pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Now the activists face a trial against the Chinese state for crimes that carry up to a lifetime prison sentence or even execution.

However, some critics believe the trial may be less than fair. Authorities only confirmed the group was being criminally detained on September 13, more than 20 days after their initial arrest.

Government interference

Chinese officials on the mainland have already assigned lawyers to one of the 12 Hongkongers detained – without notifying the family’s already-appointed legal counsel – and requested that at least two other attorneys representing the activists remove themselves from the cases.

In response, the involved lawyers reprimanded the government’s proceedings as an effort to prevent them from communicating with the activists.

Chengdu-based lawyer Lu Siwei told the SCMP that he had been unable to meet with his client and that – to his knowledge – none of the other legal representatives had managed to meet with their clients either since the arrests had taken place.

Lu was stopped by officers while trying to contact his client. They demanded notarized documents confirming the identity of the suspect’s brother, the person that initially reached out to the lawyer for help.

After returning with the paperwork, officials told Lu that they would contact him within 48 hours to authorize or refuse the meeting.

Only two hours later, officials declined the meeting and notified Lu that two other lawyers had been appointed to the woman.

“I immediately raised that I have the right to verify [with my client] whether this is true," said Lu. “But the two officers just returned the documents to me and left without giving me a reply."

He told the SCMP, “[They have] deprived me of my right to meet my client. I demand they let me exercise my rights as soon as possible. I feel extremely powerless."

Ren Quanniu, another lawyer appointed to one of the detainees, told the SCMP that officials had denied him communication with his client and even asked him to resign the case.

He quoted them as saying, “The matters these people are involved with are too huge."

“They said I can’t prove that the instructions I have came from family members even though I have provided my client’s birth certificate issued in Hong Kong," Ren told Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK).

The accusations

On September 14, Hong Kong security chief John Lee confirmed the charges against the group in his official blog.

Ten are accused of allegedly “manufacturing or possessing explosives, arson, conspiring to harm, rioting, assaulting police officers and possessing offensive weapons,” one for possessing or manufacturing explosives and the final for “colluding with foreign forces” – a serious offense under China’s newly-imposed national security law.

The law – which took effect on June 30 – punishes crimes, such as subversion, with potentially heavy prison sentences, including the death penalty.

Under whose jurisdiction?

Democratic Party lawmaker James To argues that if the suspects are proven to have had no intention of entering the mainland, they should be returned to Hong Kong, as is typical in such a case.

However, lawyers believe the matter may be more severe than simply “illegally crossing the national border." Police officers investigating the case told them the activists could be tried for organizing others to cross unlawfully.

Under China’s criminal law, people arrested for illegal crossings face a penalty of up to one-year imprisonment, while those convicted of organizing others to do so face up to seven years.

For those with a key role in operating a syndicate or who violently oppose law enforcement, the penalty can be life in prison or even execution.

Still, Ren firmly believes that there is no such stipulation – or crime so “huge” – that legal representatives should be denied the right to meet with their clients.

“The detention center said they were acting in accordance with the law, but in fact, there is no such provision under the Criminal Procedure Law. It’s not legal," Ren said.

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