HONG KONG - The young woman keeps two timers on her phone: one counting down until her anniversary with her boyfriend, the other tracking how many days it has been since he vanished at sea.
She'd noticed him acting strange in the days before Aug. 23: tense and withdrawn, but abruptly telling her "Take care" and that she was loved.
They had gotten together in December after he was bailed out of detention, one of more than 10,000 Hong Kong people who've been arrested since last year in connection with mass protests against increasing Chinese control over the semi-autonomous territory. He'd become constantly on guard after that, afraid of being locked up again.
Then he disappeared. For three days, his girlfriend and family had no information of his whereabouts. They worried he'd been kidnapped or even killed. Word came on Aug. 26: The Chinese coast guard had stopped a boat reportedly headed toward Taiwan and taken 12 Hong Kongers on board into detention. They would be held in mainland China, not their home city.
"He is trapped in another hell," said the girlfriend, who spoke on condition of using only her first name, Alice, and withholding her boyfriend's name for fear of retribution under a new national security law recently imposed on Hong Kong to silence dissent in the former British colony.
A month has passed since the "Hong Kong 12," as they have been nicknamed in the city, were detained for alleged illegal border crossing in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, just over an hour's drive from Hong Kong but a world away in terms of legal protections.
Their case is a nightmare for 12 families now living the very scenario that brought millions of protesters into Hong Kong's streets last year: being subjected to the mainland Chinese justice system, where the law enforces political authority rather than upholding individuals' rights.
All but one of the detained had been barred from leaving Hong Kong under court orders, according to a statement from Hong Kong police. They were mostly activists and pro-democracy protesters who had been charged with attempted arson, possession of offensive weapons, rioting and possession of explosives; one had been charged with breaking the national security law.
The Hong Kong families have attempted to hire mainland Chinese lawyers to defend the 12 - 11 men and one woman - who range in age from 16 to 33 and include at least one foreign national, a 19-year-old with Portuguese citizenship, according to local reports.
None of the mainland lawyers representing the 12 have been granted access to their clients, according to two of the lawyers hired by the families and activists working with them. The lawyers have been followed, harassed, warned by security officials to drop the case, and told at the Shenzhen detention center that the 12 had separately hired their own attorneys from a government-provided list.