Hong Kong activist returned from Chinese prison found guilty in national security case

© Reuters

By Jessie Pang and Aiden Waters

HONG KONG (Reuters) -A Hong Kong pro-democracy activist, who had been detained in mainland China after trying to flee the city by boat, was found guilty on Thursday of conspiracy to commit collusion with a foreign country in a national security case.

Andy Li was among a group of 12 people intercepted by mainland authorities in August 2020 on a boat believed to be en route to Taiwan, in a case which drew international attention and concern over their treatment in China.

The court heard Li, 31, was instructed by media tycoon and prominent China critic Jimmy Lai, who is in prison for illegal assembly charges and faces his own national security trial, to help lobby for sanctions against Hong Kong and China.

High Court Judge Alex Lee convicted Li, who will remain in custody, for conspiracy to commit subversion. The case is adjourned for Jan. 3, 2022. It is unclear when Li will be sentenced.

"I agree and I want to say sorry," Li told the court.

Li, who had not spoken publicly about his detention in China and was detained upon his return to Hong Kong, had pleaded guilty to the charges.

Li's lawyers Alain Sham and Trevor Chan left the court without commenting. His previous lawyer Lawrence Law has not commented publicly on the case and did not respond to a Reuters email seeking comment.

Chan Tsz-wah, a 29-year-old paralegal facing similar conspiracy charges in the same case, who was not among the 12 on the boat, also pleaded guilty and was convicted on Thursday and due to return to court in January.

In China, the 12 were sentenced to between seven months and three years for illegally crossing the border, or organising the crossing.

Two minors were released in December, while eight others, including Li, were released in March, but they were all detained in Hong Kong when they returned for charges related to their role in pro-democracy protests that swept the city in 2019. Two more remain in a Chinese prison, serving sentences of two and three years.

One of the minors, Hoang Lam Phuc, was ordered detention in a training centre for under-20-year-olds last month after pleading guilty to attempted arson and possessing dangerous objects.

The other cases are ongoing.

Mainland authorities had insisted that officially appointed lawyers represented the 12 for their investigation and trial in China and denied their families access to them, provoking criticism from rights groups. Two mainland-based human rights lawyers who tried to help with the case saw their licenses revoked.

Diplomats and journalists were barred from attending their trial in China.

Beatrice Li, his sister, who has been advocating for more transparency on the case on the "Andy is missing" Facebook page and Twitter handle, told Reuters just before the hearing she still did not know "what exactly has happened" with her brother in China and Hong Kong.

"We should look at Andy's case as one that has significant resemblance to how a case is handled under the Chinese legal system, instead of one going through the usual Hong Kong legal system we are familiar with," she said.

Hong Kong's mini-constitution says the city's judiciary is independent. In China, courts are controlled by the Communist Party and their conviction rate is close to 100%.

China's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, which comes under the State Council, or cabinet, did not respond to a request for comment. Chinese authorities had said their case was handled "in accordance with the law".

A spokesman for the Hong Kong government's Security Bureau declined comment on the particulars of Li's case, citing ongoing judicial proceedings, but said "endangering national security is a very serious crime".

Hong Kong "will not interfere with the law enforcement, judicial actions and penalty system of other jurisdictions," the spokesman said in an email, referring to Li's prosecution and trial in China.

(Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Stephen Coates and Michael Perry)