By Jessie Pang
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Family members of some of the 12 Hong Kong people arrested by China at sea in August said on Thursday they have received their first letters from them, but they were suspicious of the praise for how well they have been treated in prison.
The 12 were arrested as they tried to flee by boat to Taiwan, with most of them suspected of crimes related to last year's often-violent pro-democracy protests, and have since been detained in the neighbouring Chinese mainland city of Shenzhen.
In a joint statement, families of seven of the detainees said their lawyers, chosen from a list provided by Chinese authorities, passed on letters similar in content, all describing good conditions in prison and urging their families and neighbours back home not to worry.
"There were many letters that directly 'responded' to the doubts of the outside world about China," the statement said.
"It is likely that the letters are written in accordance to some templates."
The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with a guarantee of freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland under a "one country, two systems" formula agreed to by Beijing and London.
Pro-democracy protesters believe those freedoms are being eroded by Beijing, especially with a draconian national security law introduced this year clamping down on dissent.
China denies curbing rights and freedoms and says the legislation was needed to ensure law and order.
A man answering the phone at the Yantian district police office in Shenzhen said requests for comment should be directed to city authorities. Calls outside working hours to the information office of the Shenzhen municipal government were not answered.
The families have made several public appearances urging authorities in Hong Kong and China to allow them to speak to the detainees and appoint their own chosen lawyers to defend them against charges of illegal border crossing.
The Hong Kong government has said they have to face justice on the mainland before returning to Hong Kong where they are expected to be further investigated for the suspected protest-related crimes.
The families said the detainees advised them in their letters "not to say too much" to the media or to visit them in China.
Unlike in Hong Kong, where the justice system is independent and based on common law, mainland Chinese courts are loyal to the Communist Party and do not challenge the party's accusations. Conviction rates are close to 100%.
In the statement, the families said they recognised the hand writing, but some of the content was in simplified Chinese, rather than traditional Chinese, which the detainees - like most people in Hong Kong - normally use.
"It is doubtful that they wrote the letter out of their own free will," it said.
(Additional reporting by Beijing bureau; Editing by Marius Zaharia and Nick Macfie)