A 90-year-old former bishop and outspoken critic of China’s ruling Communist Party was found guilty on Friday of a charge 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, breached the Societies Ordinance by failing to register the now-defunct “612 Humanitarian Relief Fund” which was used in part to pay the protesters’ legal and medical fees, the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts ruled .
The silver-haired cardinal, who appeared in court with a walking stick, and his co-accused had all 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 agreement with Beijing on the appointment of bishops in China.
Outside court, Zen told reporters that he hoped people would not associate his convictions with religious freedom.
“I saw many people abroad are concerned that a cardinal was arrested. It is not related to religious freedom. I am part of the fund. (Hong Kong) has not seen damage (to) its religious freedom,” Zen said.
Zen and four other trustees of the fund – singer Ho, paralegal Margaret Ng, scholar Hui Po Keung and politician Cyd 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 had initially been charged under the controversial Beijing-backed national security law for cooperation with foreign forces, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Those charges were dropped and they instead faced a lesser charge under the Societies Ordinance, a century-old colonial-era law punishable by fines of up to HK$10,000 ($1,274), but not 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 meetings, such as paying for sound equipment used in 2019 during street protests to resist Beijing’s tightening grip.
Although Zen and the five other defendants were spared from being charged under the National Security Law, the legislation imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong in June 2020 in an attempt to quell the protests has been repeatedly used to quell dissent .
Since the introduction of the law, most of the city’s prominent pro-democracy figures have either been arrested or gone into exile, while several independent media and non-governmental organizations have been closed.
The Hong Kong government has repeatedly denied criticism that the law – which criminalises acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collaboration with foreign forces – has stifled freedoms, claiming instead that it has restored order to the city after the 2019 protest movement.
Hong Kong’s prosecution of one of Asia’s leading priests has brought relations between Beijing and the Holy See into sharp focus. CNN has contacted the Vatican on Thursday for comment on Zen’s case, but has not received a response.
Zen has strongly opposed a controversial agreement reached in 2018 between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops. Previously, both sides had demanded the final say on 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 the looming 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 significant protests, from the mass demonstration against national security legislation in 2003 to the “umbrella movement” demanding universal suffrage in 2014.