Hong Kong finds 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 Friday of charges related to his role in an aid fund for Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protests.

Cardinal Joseph Zen and five others, including Cantopop singer Denise Ho, violated the organization’s bylaws by failing to register the now-defunct “612 Humanitarian Relief Fund,” which was used in part to pay for legal and medical expenses of protesters, West Kowloon Magistrates. The courts ruled.

The silver-haired cardinal, who appeared in court with a cane, and his co-accused had all pleaded not guilty.

The case is seen as a sign 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 agreement with Beijing on the appointment of bishops in China. .

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

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

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

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

All had originally been charged under a controversial Beijing-backed national security law for colluding with foreign forces, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. Those charges were dropped and they 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 support to the protesters, the fund was also used to support pro-democracy gatherings, such as paying for the sound equipment used. in 2019 in street protests to resist Beijing’s tightening grip.

Although Zen and the other five defendants were spared prosecution under the National Security Law, the legislation Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in June 2020 in an attempt to quell the protests has repeatedly been used to stifle dissent.

Since the law was passed, most of the city’s most prominent democrats have been either arrested or exiled, while several independent media outlets and NGOs have been shut down.

The Hong Kong government has repeatedly denied criticism that the law – which criminalises secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces – has stifled freedom, insisting instead that it has restored order to the city after the 2019 protests.

Hong Kong’s prosecution of one of Asia’s top clerics has drawn attention to the relationship between Beijing and the Holy See.

Zen has strongly opposed the controversial agreement reached in 2018 between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops. Previously, both sides had claimed the final say on the appointment of bishops in mainland China, where religious activities are heavily monitored and sometimes banned.

Born to Catholic parents in Shanghai in 1932, Zen fled to Hong Kong with his family to escape the looming communist regime as a teenager. Ordained a priest in 1961, he 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 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 National Security Act rally to the “Umbrella Movement” demanding universal suffrage in 2014.

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