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


Hong Kong
CNN

A 90-year-old former bishop and outspoken critic of China’s ruling Communist Party pleaded guilty Friday to charges related to his role in funding aid for the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Five others, including Cardinal Joseph Zen and 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 for protesters’ legal and medical expenses, West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts ruled .

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

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

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

“I saw that many people abroad were worried about the cardinal’s arrest. It has nothing to do with religious freedom. I am part of the foundation. (Hong Kong) has not done any harm to its religious freedom,” Zen said.

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

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

All were initially charged with colluding with foreign powers under a controversial Beijing-backed national security law that carries a maximum sentence 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 aid to protesters, the fund was also used to sponsor pro-democracy rallies. During the 2019 street protests to resist Beijing’s crackdown.

Although Zen and five other defendants escaped prosecution under the national security law, Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong in June 2020 has been repeatedly used to curb dissent.

Since the law took effect, most of the city’s prominent pro-democracy activists have been arrested or exiled, and several independent media outlets and non-governmental organizations have been shut down.

Hong Kong’s government has repeatedly rejected criticism that the law, which criminalizes acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers, stifles freedoms, instead claiming to have restored order in the city after the 2019 protests.

Hong Kong’s prosecution of one of Asia’s most senior clerics has brought relations between Beijing and the Holy See into sharp focus.

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

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

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