Social activist Eddie Chu (C) joins family members of 12 Hong Kong residents, who were intercepted by the Chinese coastguard and detained on the mainland in August after they were caught trying to flee Hong Kong for Taiwan on speedboat for serious protest-linked prosecutions, in a protest outside the Government Flying Service headquarters in Hong Kong on October 8 against the service's alleged role in the dozen's interception at sea. Photo: AFP / Isaac Lawrence

At least seven 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 seven detainees have been told by Chinese government-appointed lawyers that a 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.

The group – the youngest just 16 – was caught by the coast guard 70 kilometers (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 illegal border crossing, while two are suspected of organizing 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.

– AFP