Bitter irony of detained dozen

Editorial | Mary Ma 16 Sep 2020

The group of 12 fugitives, including a 29-year-old charged with making explosives, never thought they would end up in mainland custody as a result of their daring - but failed - attempt to escape to Taiwan.

And it is totally understandable that their families cried for help after failing to hear from them since their arrest in mainland waters three weeks ago.

Although I sympathize with their sense of helplessness, I have to say there was some irony in their pleas.

With up to a claimed two million people swamping the streets last year to oppose the proposed extradition bill, it is safe to assume that some of these same family members were among the crowds.

It's ironic that, after opposing the bill and eventually succeeding in scrapping it, they are now demanding that their family members be returned to the city - by extradition or any other means.

In one sense, they fell into the trap they helped to make.

Yet, as absurd as it may sound, the families' appeals did echo deep-seated concerns shared by many Hongkongers over the mainland's judicial system.

It boils down to a lack of confidence in that system.

The case is also an opportunity for the mainland to demonstrate a readiness to respect the law.

One of the biggest complaints of the families was that lawyers they hired were denied access to their family members.

Pro-Beijing heavyweight Tam Yiu-chung explained the detainees had been assigned legal representatives by the state. Clearly, the mainland could have done better in this regard. At the very least, the detainees should be allowed to communicate directly with their families and free to choose their lawyers.

And it did their case no good when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited them in a public statement.

China never likes bowing to pressure and Pompeo's statement was bound to anger Beijing rather than help the detainees.

Tam was probably too optimistic when he commented that, on the table, was a simple case of illegal immigration - an offense carrying a sentence up to one year in jail.

Given the background of mounting conflicts between the US and China, it is questionable whether Beijing will let them off that easy.

It is most unfortunate that Hong Kong has found itself enmeshed in global geopolitical conflicts. So when Democrat Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun kicked off in English a press conference with the detainees' families, it only reinforced an impression that they were trying to invite international intervention.

Whether or not the detained dozen become an involuntary pawn on the political chess board will depend on how the game plays out overall.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying's tweet describing the group as "separatists" rather than illegal immigrants in response to her US counterpart Morgan Ortagus' tweet depicting them as "democracy activists" did not bode well for the likely course of development.

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