Families Receive Letters from Hong Kong Detainees in China, but Doubt the Contents

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HONG KONG — “I am living well here, so you don’t have to worry about me,” the letter read. “I am stuffed with three meals every day that taste pretty good.”

“Here I am not bullied or hit by anyone, and live well and harmoniously with my roommates,” said another, “I will be back soon.”

These were the first words that the families of some of 12 young Hong Kongers heard from them on Thursday, three months after they were detained by Chinese authorities while trying to flee the crackdown in their home city.

But rather than providing their relatives in Hong Kong with assurances, the letters, which present a rosy picture of Chinese detention, served to highlight the isolation of the 12 detainees, who have been denied the right to choose their lawyers and prevented from directly contacting their loved ones. Their families are pushing authorities in Hong Kong and mainland China to grant such rights and access.

The Hong Kongers, aged between 16 and 33, had tried to escape by speedboat to Taiwan in August, fearing political persecution after they were arrested in connection with anti-government protests. Among them was Andy Li, a prominent activist arrested under China’s new national security law for Hong Kong, which punishes broadly worded crimes such as “foreign interference” and “secession” with up to life in prison.

The group, who spent months plotting their escape, were intercepted by the Chinese coast guard shortly after departing on the morning of Aug. 23.

They have been held by the Yantian branch of the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau, and were formally arrested in October. Two are accused of organizing an illegal border crossing between Hong Kong and China, while the other 10 were arrested for illegally crossing into mainland waters. Calls to the Yantian detention center on Friday went unanswered.

Human rights groups and lawyers have warned that the 12 are at risk of torture and ill-treatment in China’s opaque justice system. In Hong Kong, their case has reinvigorated calls to safeguard the territory’s independent judiciary and legal system from political interference, as Beijing tightens its grip on the former British colony.

They have been held by the Yantian branch of the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau, and were formally arrested in October. Two are accused of organizing an illegal border crossing between Hong Kong and China, while the other 10 were arrested for illegally crossing into mainland waters. Calls to the Yantian detention center on Friday went unanswered.

Human rights groups and lawyers have warned that the 12 are at risk of torture and ill-treatment in China’s opaque justice system. In Hong Kong, their case has reinvigorated calls to safeguard the territory’s independent judiciary and legal system from political interference, as Beijing tightens its grip on the former British colony.

A Hong Kong protester holds a sign during a march Oct. 25 in Taipei, Taiwan, to demand the release of the 12 Hong Kong protesters detained at sea by Chinese authorities. (Chiang Ying-ying/AP)

The detainees’ families — who received letters from seven of the 12 — said in a joint statement that they were suspicious of the letters. Although they recognized the handwriting, parts were written in the simplified Chinese characters used in mainland China, rather than traditional characters used by people in Hong Kong. The letters, the statement added, seemed to respond “to the doubts of the outside world about China” and featured similar descriptions of life in detention.

“It is likely that the letters are written in accordance [with] some templates,” the statement said.

The accounts of benign conditions in detention in China are also at odds with previously documented reports about Chinese jails, where prisoners have described enduring forced labor and torture. China has denied these reports.

A family member of 30-year-old Tang Kai-yin, one of the detainees, said they believed the letter was written by him, as they recognized his handwriting.

“But as to what condition he was writing those letters under, and how much he really meant what he said, that’s 50-50,” the family member said, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of concern for their privacy and safety.

Tang’s letter mentioned that his asthma and preexisting skin conditions were not flaring up. His family has publicly urged authorities to ensure he can access medication, and relatives have raised his health issues in news conferences. Tang, they said, needs to use an inhaler for his asthma every day, but they have received no confirmation that an inhaler has been made available to him in detention.

“Although he said he lives well, we won’t fully believe it,” said the family member, who added that it was nevertheless a comfort to hear from him.

By Shibani Mahtani and Theodora Yu

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