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 Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019.
Cardinal Joseph Zen and five others, including canto-pop singer Denise Ho, contravened the Societies Ordinance by failing to register the now-defunct “612 Humanitarian Aid Fund” which was used in part to pay protesters’ legal and medical fees, the West Kowloon Magistrates. the courts ruled.
The silver-haired cardinal, who appeared in court with a cane, and his co-defendants had denied all charges.
The case is considered a marker of political freedom. Hong Kong during an ongoing crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, and it 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, Zen told reporters that he hoped people would not link his conviction to religious freedom.
“I saw many people abroad concerned about the arrest of a cardinal. It is not related to religious freedom. I am part of the fund. (Hong Kong) has not suffered damage to its religious freedom,” Zen said.
Zen and four other trustees of the fund – singer Ho, lawyer Margaret Ng, scholar Hui Po Keung and politician Cyd Ho – were sentenced to fines of HK$4,000 ($510) each.
A sixth defendant, Sze Ching-wee, who was the secretary of the fund, was fined HK$2,500 ($320).
Initially, all had been charged under the controversial Beijing-backed national security law with collusion with foreign forces, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. Those charges were dropped and they instead faced a lesser charge under the Companies 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 the protesters, the fund was also used to sponsor pro-democracy demonstrations, such as paying for the audio equipment used. in 2019 during street protests to resist Beijing’s increasing control.
Although Zen and the other five defendants were spared from indictment under the national security law, legislation imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong in June 2020 in an attempt to quell protests has been repeatedly used to curb dissent.
Since the imposition of the law, most of the city’s prominent pro-democracy figures have been arrested or gone into exile, while several independent media outlets and non-governmental organizations have been shut down.
The Hong Kong government has repeatedly denied criticism that the law, which criminalizes acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, has stifled freedoms, instead saying it has restored order to the city after of the 2019 protest movement.
Hong Kong’s prosecution of one of Asia’s top clerics has highlighted the relationship between Beijing and the Holy See. CNN contacted the Vatican on Thursday for comment on Zen’s case but did not receive 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 tightly controlled and sometimes prohibited.
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 Bishop of Hong Kong in 2002, before retiring in 2009.
Known as the “Hong Kong conscience” among his followers, Zen has long been a leading advocate of democracy, human rights and religious freedom. He has been at the forefront of some of the city’s biggest protests, from the mass demonstration against national security legislation in 2003 to the “Umbrella Movement” demanding universal suffrage in 2014.
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