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

Hong Kong

A 90-year-old former bishop and outspoken critic of China’s ruling Communist Party was found guilty on Friday of charges related to his role in a fund to help Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protests.

Cardinal Joseph Zen and five others, including Cantopop singer Denise Ho, breached the Societies Ordinance by failing to register the now-defunct “612 Humanitarian Aid Fund”, which was partly used to pay the legal and medical fees of the protesters, the magistrates of West Kowloon The courts have ruled.

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

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

Outside court, Zenn told reporters that he hoped people would not associate his conviction with religious freedom.

“I saw that many people abroad were concerned about the arrest of a cardinal. It has nothing to do with religious freedom. I am part of the fund. (Hong Kong) has not seen any impairment (of) its religious freedom,” Zen said.

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

A sixth defendant, Sze Ching-wee, who was the fund’s secretary, was fined HK$2,500 ($320).

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

The court heard in September that the legal fund 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 the audio equipment used in 2019 during street protests to oppose Beijing’s tightening grip.

Although Zen and the other five defendants were spared prosecution under the national security law, the legislation, imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong in June 2020 in an attempt to quell protests, has repeatedly been used to curb dissent.

After the law was imposed, most of the city’s prominent pro-democracy figures were arrested or exiled, while several independent media and non-governmental organizations were shut down.

Hong Kong’s government has repeatedly rejected criticism that the law – which criminalises acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers – has stifled freedoms, instead claiming it has restored order to the city since the 2019 protest movement.

Hong Kong’s prosecution of one of Asia’s most senior clerics has thrown relations between Beijing and the Holy See into sharp focus. CNN reached out to the Vatican Thursday for comment on Zen’s case, but did not receive a response.

Zen strongly opposed the controversial agreement reached in 2018 between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops. Both countries have previously claimed the final say in bishop appointments in mainland China, where religious activities are strictly monitored and sometimes banned.

Born to Catholic parents in Shanghai in 1932, Zen fled to Hong Kong with his family to escape looming communist rule as a teenager. He was ordained a priest in 1961 and was made 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 defender of democracy, human rights and religious freedom. He has been on the front lines of some of the city’s most important protests, from the mass rally against national security legislation in 2003 to the Umbrella Movement demanding universal suffrage in 2014.

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