Authorities in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen have issued a ban on lawyers appointed by the families of 12 Hong Kong activists detained by the China Coast Guard on Aug. 23 and currently being held in the city’s Yantian Detention Center on suspicion of “illegally crossing a border.”
Five law firms have received verbal orders from the Yantian district bureau of judicial affairs to stop acting for the families of the 12 detainees, several people close to the case told RFA.
Officials are saying that the orders came from the ministry of justice in Beijing.
The detainees are aged 16 to 33 and were trying to flee to the democratic island of Taiwan by speedboat after being charged with crimes linked to months of protest that rocked Hong Kong last year.
Any lawyer hired to act on behalf of the 12 activists has been ordered to stop doing so, often by repeated phone calls from judicial bureau officials to their personal number, according to multiple sources.
The orders came after 10 lawyers made repeated attempts to meet with their clients, but were denied entry by detention center staff.
Six lawyers have already succumbed to the relentless political pressure, and relinquished their instructions, while 13 have been hauled in to “chat” with officials.
‘Highly sensitive’ case
One lawyer appointed to act on behalf of one of the detainees, who asked to remain anonymous, said the case is highly sensitive.
He said all lawyers for the 12 detainees had received orders to withdraw, but that he had refused.
“To begin with, some firms were told they could represent them if they didn’t hype the case,” the lawyer said. “But now we are all being told to drop the case.”
“The city and district judicial affairs bureaus are doing this either in face-to-face interviews or by phone, and there is no written record of this happening,” the lawyer said.
“I myself was called in for an interview, and got phone calls from the judicial affairs bureau, who told me to drop the case,” he said. “So this case has become very sensitive.”
He said he had been surprised by the authorities’ response, given that the charges against the Hong Kong 12 were fairly straightforward.
He said Shenzhen was likely using a mechanism for political review of sensitive cases set up when it incarcerated dozens of labor activists in recent years during industrial disputes at factories in Guangdong province.
“Shenzhen often does this,” the lawyer said. “In the past few years, Shenzhen has handled labor-related cases and other civil rights cases, and lawyers were warned off taking those cases then, too, so they are doing the same thing again.”
He said the 12 detainees were highly likely to be convicted of the charges against them, but said it was hard to predict the severity of the sentences they would receive.
Deprived of their rights
In Hong Kong, Democratic Party lawmaker James To, who has been assisting the families of the detainees, said the 12 have effectively been deprived of their right to choose their legal representation.
He called on Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam to raise the issue with the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing on a forthcoming visit.
Repeated calls to the ministry of justice in Beijing rang unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.
An employee who answered the phone at the Shenzhen bureau of judicial affairs said they weren’t aware of the ban.
“I have received no notification or information regarding any ban on representing the 12 Hong Kong detainees,” the employee said.
Reported by Man Hoi-tsan for RFA’s Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.