China arrests 12 fleeing Hong Kong by boat

Coast Guard intercepts boat ‘en route to Taiwan’; pro-democracy activist held.

A dozen people fleeing Hong Kong on a speedboat, including an activist arrested under the draconian new national security law, have been captured by China, police in the city said on Friday.

The boat was intercepted by the coastguard, police said, with local media saying it was en route to Taiwan, a self-ruled island that regularly offers sanctuary to people escaping the authoritarian mainland.

Multiple media reports said the 12 included Andy Li, who was arrested earlier this month for alleged collusion with foreign forces — a crime under the new Beijing-imposed law that carries a possible life sentence.

Also read | China seeks India’s support for its new draconian law to crack down on Hong Kong protesters

The pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po newspaper, citing unnamed sources, said others onboard included several arrested for their part in the sometimes violent pro-democracy protests that wreaked Hong Kong for much of 2019.

Security law

Beijing imposed its swingeing national security law in June after tiring of the protests. The law is described by China as a “sword” hanging over the heads of its pro-democracy opponents. Authorities promised it would not apply to past transgressions.

But details from more than 20 arrests so far show actions, including political speeches and online posts made before the law was introduced, have formed a key part of investigations, helping police obtain search warrants, conduct raids and make arrests.

Overnight, certain opinions and expressions in previously free-wheeling Hong Kong became illegal, and activists have spoken of a deep chilling effect that has seen books yanked from libraries and publishers rush to amend their titles.

“They will go back into your history and look for connections,” one lawyer involved in national security investigations

Hong Kong’s administration insists the law has not impinged on the rights to freedom of speech and assembly.

Seeking asylum

But a number of pro-democracy figures have left the city since it came into effect, fearful that they may be swept up in a Beijing dragnet and disappear into the mainland’s opaque and Communist Party-run justice system.

Before the new law was imposed in response to the huge protests that erupted in June 2019, Hong Kong police had arrested more than 9,000 people, among whom more than 600 were charged with rioting, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail.

At least 50 former Hong Kong protesters had already applied for asylum in various jurisdictions before the coronavirus pandemic ended most international travel. Hundreds more have relocated to democratic Taiwan.

Also read | U.S. lawmakers condemn China’s authoritarian grip on Hong Kong

Hong Kong police said the 12, aged between 16 and 33, were being held by mainland authorities. They gave no details on when they would be handed back to Hong Kong.

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