Hong Kong finds Cardinal Joseph Zen guilty of pro-democracy protest fund

Hong Kong

The 90-year-old former bishop and outspoken critic of the ruling Chinese Communist Party was found guilty on Friday over charges of his role in a relief fund. Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019.

Cardinal Joseph Zen and five others, including Cantopop singer Denise Ho, violated the Societies Ordinance by failing to register the now-defunct 612 Humanitarian Aid Fund, which was used in part to pay for the legal and medical services of protesters, the West Kowloon Magistrates. The courts have ruled.

The gray-haired cardinal, who appeared in court with a cane, and his co-defendants denied the charges.

The case is considered a marker of political freedom Hong Kong during an ongoing crackdown on the pro-democracy movement and comes at a challenging time for the Vatican, which is preparing to renew a controversial deal with Beijing over the appointment of bishops in China.

Outside the court, Zen told reporters that he hoped people wouldn’t link his conviction to religious freedom.

“I saw how many people abroad are concerned about the arrest of the cardinal. It has nothing to do with freedom of religion. I am part of the foundation. (Hong Kong) saw no damage to their religious freedom,” Zen said.

Zen and four other trustees of the foundation – singer Ho, lawyer Margaret Ng, scholar Hui Po Keung and politician Sid Ho – were each fined HK$4,000 (US$510).

The sixth defendant, Xie Ching-Wee, secretary of the foundation, was fined HK$2,500 (US$320).

All were initially charged with colluding with foreign forces under a controversial Beijing-backed national security law that carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. These charges were dropped and instead faced a lesser charge under the Societies Ordinance, a hundred-year-old colonial-era law punishable by a fine of up to HK$10,000 (US$1,274), but no jail time for first-time offenders.

In September, the court heard that the legal fund had raised the equivalent of $34.4 million through 100,000 deposits.

In addition to providing financial assistance to protesters, the fund has also been used to sponsor pro-democracy rallies, such as paying for used audio equipment. in 2019 during street protests to oppose Beijing’s tightening of power.

While Zen and the five other defendants have not been charged under the national security law, the law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in June 2020 in an attempt to quell protests has been repeatedly used to curb dissent.

Following the passage of the law, most of the city’s prominent Democrats were either arrested or sent into exile, and several independent media outlets and non-governmental organizations were shut down.

The Hong Kong government has repeatedly dismissed criticism that the law, which criminalizes acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, stifled freedoms, arguing instead that it restored order to the city after the 2019 protest movement.

The prosecution in Hong Kong of one of Asia’s most senior clerics has drawn attention to the relationship between Beijing and the Holy See. CNN contacted the Vatican on Thursday to comment on the Zen case, but received no response.

Zen strongly opposed controversial agreement concluded in 2018 between the Vatican and China over the appointment of bishops. Both sides have previously demanded the final word on the appointment of bishops in mainland China, where religious activity is tightly controlled and sometimes banned.

Born to a Catholic family in Shanghai in 1932, Zen fled with his family to Hong Kong to escape the oncoming communist regime as a teenager. He was ordained a priest in 1961 and became Bishop of Hong Kong in 2002 before retiring in 2009.

Known as “the conscience of Hong Kong” among his supporters, Zen has long been a prominent advocate for democracy, human rights and religious freedom. He has been at the forefront of some of the city’s most important protests, from the mass rally against the National Security Act in 2003 to the Umbrella Movement demanding universal suffrage in 2014.