Hong Kong says it will not interfere with China's arrest of 12 at sea

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong’s government will not intervene in the case of 12 city residents who mainland Chinese authorities arrested as they tried to flee by boat to Taiwan, despite pleas from their relatives for help, saying it was a mainland matter.

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The 12 were arrested on Aug. 23 for illegal entry into mainland China after setting off from Hong Kong in a boat bound for self-ruled Taiwan following a crackdown by Beijing on pro-democracy activists in the former British colony.

The failed bid by the 12 to flee to Taiwan has highlighted the fears that many people feel in semi-autonomous Hong Kong about what they see as China’s determination to end any push for greater democracy in the financial hub.

China’s foreign ministry on Sunday labelled the group “separatists”. Police in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, where they are being held, said they were suspected of illegal entry.

“Everyone, regardless of where they are in any jurisdiction, must respect local laws and be responsible for their actions,” Hong Kong’s Security Bureau, which is responsible for law and order in the semi-autonomous city, said in a statement.

Hong Kong people who broke laws overseas could expect “feasible assistance” from the city while respecting the local judicial system, it said.

The bureau said all 12 were suspected of committing crimes in Hong Kong, with 10 of them charged with offences such as manufacturing or possessing explosives, arson, rioting, assaulting police or possession of offensive weapons. Those 10 had been on bail and not allowed to leave Hong Kong, it said.

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One was suspected of colluding with foreign forces under a national security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in June. The law allows for the punishment of anything China considers to be subversion, separatism, terrorism or such collusion.

Critics say the law undermines the special status the city was guaranteed when Britain handed it over to China under “one country, two systems” formula in 1997.

Supporters say it will restore stability after months of sometimes violent pro-democracy protests.

Relatives of the detainees held a news conference in Hong on Saturday to demand their return.

The youngest of the 12 was a boy aged 16 and several of them needed medication, the relatives said.

The Security Bureau said families could get legal help and arrangements could be made for medication.

Reporting by Farah Master and Marius Zaharia; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel