Ten Hong Kong activists arrested at sea as they tried to flee to Taiwan by speedboat have been jailed by China for between seven months and three years.
Two others – of the group dubbed the Hong Kong 12 – are minors and will be returned to Hong Kong.
The activists were caught in August as they made a rare attempt to escape the city after a harsh new security law was introduced by Beijing in June.
They were accused of making or organising an illegal border crossing.
Tang Kai Yin and Quinn Moon have been jailed for three years and two years respectively for planning and organising the escape, a court statement said.
The remaining eight activists have been sentenced to a “lighter punishment” of seven months in prison for illegally crossing the border, it added.
Chinese authorities said all 12 had pleaded guilty.
The two minors – aged 16 and 17 – will be returned to Hong Kong, reported Chinese state media.
The two teens were expected to be handed back by authorities in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen – where all the activists have been held virtually incommunicado for four months – to Hong Kong police at the border around noon, AFP said.
A lawyer for the activists has said the eight who have received the lesser jail term should be able to return home on March 24 to take into account the time they have already served.
The case of the Hong Kong 12 has attracted huge global attention at a time of growing fears about Hong Kong’s evaporating freedoms.
The 12 Hong Kongers – aged 16 to 33 – were intercepted at sea by the Chinese coastguard on the morning of 23 August, just 40 miles (70 km) southeast of Hong Kong.
Most of those on board were already facing charges at home linked to the huge pro-democracy protests that swept the former British colony last year.
That meant they could not leave the territory by regular means.
At least one of the activists was being investigated under the controversial national security law.
China’s new law: Why is Hong Kong worried?
Since late last year Taiwan has emerged as a tacit sanctuary for Hong Kong activists escaping a growing crackdown on protesters.
The Washington Post reports that hundreds of Hong Kongers have sought refuge on the island, most arriving legally by air but some using smugglers to reach by boat.
The case of the 12 detainees has highlighted the growing struggle for democracy activists in Hong Kong, which was once a key destination for refugees fleeing persecution.
What do we know about the case?
For months after their arrests the activists were held in detention without charge in the mainland city of Shenzhen.
A few weeks ago Chinese authorities finally charged 10 of the group: eight have been accused of illegally crossing the border, which carries up to a year in jail, while two face the more serious charge of organising the crossing, punishable by up to seven years.
The defendants went on trial on Monday in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.
The hearing was closed to foreign reporters and diplomats – as many are in China – but the court said in a statement that both prosecution and defence lawyers spoke.
Families barred from hearing
The families of the activists have expressed their fears about the fates of the detainees in China’s notoriously opaque judicial system.
The Chinese lawyers some of them had hired were barred from seeing their clients as authorities stepped in to appoint state-approved counsel, according to AFP.
Over the weekend the families published an open letter to the international community, appealing for its help to “safeguard the legal rights” of the detained 12.
They called for the hearing to be broadcast live, after they were barred from appearing in person because of Covid-19 restrictions, and only notified of the trial date on Friday.
At a news conference in Hong Kong relatives of some of the detainees pleaded for transparency.
“I’m begging the courts to quickly give a sentence,” said the mother of one defendant, according to Reuters. “If you give him a sentence, then I can go see him. All I want is just to see his face once.”
What has the reaction been?
The high-profile case is being closely watched in Hong Kong and abroad as a rare instance of Chinese authorities arresting people trying to leave the territory at a time of mounting concerns about its eroding autonomy.
Supporters of the Hong Kong 12 have rallied in at least a dozen cities around the world – from Taipei and New York to Adelaide and Vancouver.
Hours before the trial on Monday the US embassy in China urged the “immediate release” of the activists.
“Their so-called ‘crime’ was to flee tyranny,” a US embassy spokesperson told AFP.
The Chinese ministry of foreign affairs responded, calling on the US to “immediately stop interfering in China’s internal affairs through the Hong Kong issue”.