Pro-democracy activists take part in a 'Save 12 HK Youths' rally at Potters Fields Park beside Tower Bridge in London, England, on October 24, 2020. Photo: AFP

Ten of 12 Hong Kong pro-democracy activists arrested as they tried to flee the territory by speedboat to Taiwan will face trial in mainland China on December 28, campaigners and family members said Friday.

Relatives of the detainees have been told by Chinese government-appointed lawyers that a video hearing will take place Monday afternoon at Yantian District People’s Court in the southern city of Shenzhen, according to the Save 12 HK Youths campaign.

China has a history of putting on trial dissidents around the Christmas and New Year period to avoid Western scrutiny.

In a video hearing, defendants appear from the detention centre instead of going to court, explained Lu Siwei, a mainland Chinese human rights lawyer working on the case despite a ban and threats from the authorities.

Families of the detainees called on mainland authorities to live broadcast the trial, as they are unlikely to be able to attend given Shenzhen’s current Covid-19 quarantine requirements, and to allow their representatives, lawyers, reporters and diplomats to be present at the proceedings.

The group – the youngest just 16 – was caught by the coastguard 70 kilometres (40 miles) southeast of Hong Kong on August 23, before being transferred to police in Shenzhen. They are accused of charges linked to crossing a border illegally.

The activists – whose arrests were formally approved in September – have since disappeared into China’s opaque judicial system, with family members expressing fear over their fate.

“We were informed that Andy would be brought to trial on Monday afternoon,” the family of one of the group, activist Andy Li, tweeted on Friday.

“As with other politically sensitive cases, obviously they rushed for the Christmas period so as to minimize international backlash.”

Last week, Chinese authorities announced that the prosecution process for the 12 had begun.

Eight of the group are accused of an illegal border crossing, while two are suspected of organising for others to cross the border. Two minors face non-public hearings.

Some of those aboard the boat already faced prosecution in Hong Kong for activities linked to last year’s huge and often violent pro-democracy protests.

Chinese lawyers appointed by some of the fugitives’ families told AFP they have been barred from seeing their clients, after authorities stepped in to appoint state-approved lawyers. 

Although Hong Kong has its own internationally respected legal system – where detainees are promptly produced after their arrest and tried in open court – the mainland’s judicial system is notoriously opaque, with conviction all but guaranteed.

In June, Beijing imposed a new security law on Hong Kong, announcing it would have jurisdiction for some crimes and that mainland security agents could openly operate in the city.

With Beijing clamping down on Hong Kong’s democracy movement, Taiwan emerged as a sanctuary, quietly turning a blind eye to residents turning up without proper visas or paperwork.