But high in the sky above them, someone may have been aware of the danger they were facing.
A non-stop sea crossing in an open speedboat of the type the 12 used would normally take about 14 hours, dangerous and exhausting, with a serious risk of overturning. But soon after the 12 crossed the maritime border between Hong Kong and mainland China, their boat was stopped by a coast guard ship.
They have since been detained in China, denounced as “separatists”
Police in Shenzhen, across the Chinese border from Hong Kong, said that “public security authorities will protect the legitimate rights of suspects in accordance with the law.”
Speaking on Tuesday, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said the fugitives had “chosen to flee, and in the course of the escape they entered another jurisdiction and committed the crime of illegally entering another location.”
“They have to face the legal consequences in that jurisdiction,” Lam added. “It’s as simple and straightforward as that.”
He rejected any suggestion that the Hong Kong government was aware of or involved in the case before the 12 were arrested.
But according to open source flight data, first reported by the Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily, a Government Flying Services (GFS) aircraft was deployed in eastern Hong Kong, over Po Toi O, around 4am on the morning. August 23, and remained in the area for more than four hours.
The movement of the plane – as recorded by FlightAware, an aircraft tracking service – closely matches a history of the fugitives’ travel released by the Hong Kong government.
The GFS plane circled the Po Toi O area until 7:30 am, when it began flying southeast, the direction the speedboat took to open the waters. The Chinese coast guard stopped the boat at 9 am, less than an hour after the plane started returning to base.
According to information provided by the GFS, the aircraft involved – a Bombardier Challenger 605 – is equipped for search and rescue, aerial surveillance and aerial photography.
Publicly available flight data for the particular plane, B-LVB, shows that the August 23 trip was out of the ordinary: it did not fly before 7:30 am on any other day between August 18 and October 7, nor did it perform any other flights of more than three hours during this period.
On Thursday, Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong shared a partial flight plan that he said was leaked by an informant within the flight service. The alleged log, which CNN was unable to independently verify, shows an operation called “P-OPS”, which Wong said meant “police operation”, was in progress for the period monitored by. FlightAware.
A spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Security Bureau – which oversees police, law enforcement and flight service – said that “in accordance with established practice, the details of aircraft deployment and navigation involved in flight missions will not be disclosed “.
“Hong Kong police have repeatedly reiterated that the 12 Hong Kong suspects have been arrested by the mainland authorities for the crime of illegal border crossing,” he added. “The operation has nothing to do with the Hong Kong police.”
The suggestion that the government or police might be aware of the 12 fugitives, one of whom was facing charges under the city’s National Security Act, planned to flee Hong Kong and let them go – exposing them to greater sentences in China. – caused widespread indignation in the city.
“I am shocked and appalled that the Hong Kong government has evidently worked with the Chinese authorities to put activists in greater danger, on matters clearly within its jurisdiction,” Wong said in a statement.
In a press release Thursday, a group representing the families of the fugitives accused the government of a “conspiracy” to deliver their loved ones to China, and called for their immediate release.
A small protest was held outside flight service headquarters later Thursday, but was soon interrupted by police, who accused the protesters of breaking restrictions on public coronavirus collection.
Hong Kong has its own judicial system, based on the “one country, two systems” principle which was intended to safeguard the city’s limited autonomy until 2047, with legal and human rights protections not enjoyed on the mainland.
The law, which the government says is necessary to restore order, has forced several prominent activists to flee abroad.
CNN’s Rebecca Wright, Ivan Watson, and Isaac Yee contributed to the report.