The family of a Hong Kong teenager detained in mainland China after he tried to flee to the democratic island of Taiwan says he hasn't been allowed to see a lawyer, and that they have had scant assistance from the Hong Kong authorities.Cheng Tsz-Ho, 18, is among 12 Hongkongers aged 16 to 33 being held on suspicion of "illegal immigration" at the Yantian Detention Center in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong.They were intercepted by the China Coast Guard after they tried to escape by speedboat to the democratic island of Taiwan last month.All 12 are suspected of committing crimes in Hong Kong, according to the city's security bureau, with 10 of them wanted for manufacturing or possessing explosives, arson, rioting, assaulting police officers, or possession of offensive weapons.Cheng didn't tell his family where he was going when he joined the speedboat in a bid to smuggle himself illegally into Taiwan, and the first his family knew of his plight was from a police officer who informed them of his detention, passing on a photocopied certificate of detention "on suspicion of illegally crossing the border" on Aug. 23."I don't think the Hong Kong government has offered any assistance at all," Cheng's sister told RFA in a recent interview. "My father did receive several phone calls from the government, asking if they could send someone to visit my brother.""My father asked what they could do to help, but they couldn't answer that, and they had a pretty casual attitude," she said, adding that the lawyer they tried to hire to represent her brother has been dismissed by the mainland authorities.Detention center staff in Yantian have claimed that they are unable to verify the credentials of several lawyers hired by families in Hong Kong, and have denied them access to their clients.At least four lawyers have been forced to relinquish their instructions in this way, RFA has learned, and not one has been allowed to meet with a client."Political tensions are rising in mainland China and it's getting harder and harder to find a lawyer," Cheng's sister said. "I got a lawyer, but then he quit under political pressure and referred me to a different lawyer."Cheng said she is pursuing every avenue to keep the lawyer she hired, but expects her application to be rejected on the grounds that her brother has already been allocated a lawyer by the authorities.Cheng's family was among several who attended a news conference to hit out at the authorities for their lack of support for the 12 detainees.Chief executive Carrie Lam and her officials have said it is entirely appropriate to allow the mainland authorities to process their cases "according to law," given that many had "absconded" after facing criminal charges linked to the pro-democracy and anti-extradition protests.Concerns over lack of helpBut while the families have called for the return of the detainees, they have also raised concerns over the lack of assistance for those who need medical treatment, as well as the lack of visits by lawyers or relatives.Incommunicado detention is a known risk factor for torture and other forms of mistreatment in detention, and has been linked to several high-profile torture cases in mainland China in recent years."It is normal for the families [of detainees] to appoint the lawyers and it is also our right," Cheng's sister said. "I don't think this counts as interfering with mainland Chinese law enforcement; that is irrelevant.""What worries me the most is that he will be charged with separatist activity [under the new National Security Law for Hong Kong] and won't be allowed to come back here for as long as he lives," she said.Cheng said the normally happy family is distraught and constantly on edge, waiting for news."I fear that there will never come another day when the whole family gathers to eat our meals together," she said."Sometimes I burst out crying when I see my parents," she said. "I don't even know if my brother has enough to eat.""My mom cries a lot and has difficulty sleeping. I often dream about my brother, that he has gotten thin and has been hurt," she said. "He is 18 years old. He usually spends all of his time studying or having fun.""I don't know how he will cope in a detention center," she said. "I am giving more media interviews so more people will know about these cases, and to stop my brother getting 'disappeared'.""Right now, we can only take one day at a time," she said. "If the government won't help us, we will have to support ourselves."Thousands arrested, hundreds prosecutedAuthorities in Hong Kong are bringing hundreds of protest-related prosecutions dating from the anti-extradition and pro-democracy protests that began in June 2019 on a range of charges including unlawful assembly, assault, arson, and rioting.While thousands of people have been arrested since the movement began, a U.S. State Department report warned in March that the prosecutions of activists had infringed on the rights of Hongkongers to peaceful assembly and protest.A Hong Kong court on Thursday convicted a man of "rioting" and common assault in connection with the siege by unarmed protesters of the Hong Kong police headquarters in June 2019.Prosecutions under a draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong by the ruling Chinese Communist Party on July 1 are also gathering pace.U.S.-based pro-democracy group Freedom House on Thursday said the Hong Kong protest movement was among the recipients of its 2020 Freedom Award."As the Chinese government has heightened repression at home and expanded efforts to export its authoritarianism abroad, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement — a leaderless, people-led effort —has inspired the world," the group said in a statement announcing the awards."Beijing’s sudden imposition of a repressive new national security law has made these efforts tremendously dangerous," it said. "Yet the people of Hong Kong remain committed to defending their rights for future generations in new and creative ways."Reported by Gigi Lee for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
North Korea has set up a shoot-to-kill zone along its border with China to prevent citizens from crossing into China and bringing the coronavirus back with them should they return, the senior U.S. commander on the Korean peninsula said this week. Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of the United States Forces Korea, told an online forum hosted by a Washington think tank Thursday that North Korea had taken drastic measures on its border to stop the COVID-19 pandemic from spreading among its malnourished population and decrepit healthcare system. “North Korean smugglers have been trying to get across, and as a result, the regime issued out instructions. So now they’ve got an additional buffer zone, 1-2 kilometers up on the Chinese border,” he said. “They’ve got North Korean SOF [special operations forces] out there manning these things, strike forces, they’ve got shoot to kill orders in place, and this is fundamentally about preventing COVID from getting into North Korea,” Abrams told the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies on-line panel. The severe border control policies described by Abrams, who commands the 28,500 troops based in South Korea under a longstanding defense treaty, are nearly identical to accounts shared with RFA’s Korea Service last month in a series of reports from North Korean sources along their country’s 1,420-km (880-mile) border with China. On Aug. 26, RFA quoted sources in the North Korean military as saying that North Korea’s top brass had that day ordered military and police units to shoot on sight anyone found within 1,000 meters (0.6 miles) of the Chinese frontier in the four border provinces of North Hamgyong, North Pyongan, Chagang and Ryanggang. A build-up of forces to fight the pandemic was also revealed in earlier RFA reports quoting sources in Ryanggang province that 1,500 Special Forces soldiers and border guards had been deployed in four layers along the Sino-Korean border to prevent illegal crossings during the pandemic and prevent smuggling by guards. North Korea and China suspended all trade and closed their border at the beginning of the pandemic in January. But the frontier had remained porous, because North Korea’s nascent market economy depends on the smuggling of goods into and out of China. Smugglers skirt U.S. and UN sanctions aimed at depriving Pyongyang of cash and resources that could be funneled into its nuclear and missile programs. “With COVID-19, that has accelerated the effect of sanctions on North Korea,” said Abrams, who called the harsh border controls by Pyongyang “understandable” in view of their threadbare safety net for the population of 25.5 million people. “They have a poor health system, 60 percent of their population is undernourished, they don’t have the medical capacity, and a very large outbreak could be devastating. So they are taking those matters into their hand,” the general said. Abrams said that North Korea was not showing any signs of lashing out at South Korea or Japan, or launching other provocations, prior to the November 3 U.S. presidential election. He said North Korea “is focused on getting their country back together,” referring to extensive damage caused by Typhoons Maysak and Haishen, which hammered North Korea’s eastern provinces one right after the other over the past week. Abrams said the country’s current difficulties pale in comparison to the 1994-1998 North Korean famine that killed millions of North Koreans -- as much as 10 percent of its population by some estimates. North Korea has still not reported a single confirmed case of the coronavirus. Though the country maintains outwardly that it is virus-free, the government has announced in public lectures to citizens that the virus was in April spreading in three areas of the country, including the capital Pyongyang.