Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong, has been found guilty by the Chinese authorities after a long legal battle and fined 4,000 Hong Kong dollars.
The cardinal was arrested in May, along with other pro-democracy activists, on suspicion of “colluding with foreign forces”—a charge that could lead to life imprisonment. Further investigation into that allegation is pending, but for now, Cardinal Zen is to be penalised for failing to register in time a fund to which he and the other defendants belonged.
The fund, called the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, was set up to provide legal, financial, and medical support to people affected by the government crackdown that accompanied the massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019. It has since been disbanded.
The trial had all the makings of a political trial. Permanent Magistrate Ada Yim Shun-yee recalled that under Hong Kong’s Societies Ordinance, any organisation must apply for either registration or an exemption from registration within a month of its establishment. The defendants tried to argue that the fund in question was not an association in the strict sense and therefore did not have to register. According to Ada Yim Shun-yee, the 612 Fund did not qualify for an exemption, and had been established solely for “political aims.”
During the trial, defendants also challenged the Ordinance on the grounds that it was unconstitutional and disproportionately restricted citizens’ freedom of association. This argument was dismissed by the magistrate, who held that freedom of association is by no means absolute.
Cardinal Zen was sentenced on Friday, November 25th, along with five co-defendants, including leading pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong civil society. They include a well-known human rights lawyer, Margaret Ng; a former member of parliament, Cyd Ho, recently released from prison; a prominent sociologist, Hui Po Keung, who was arrested at the airport in May while preparing to take up a new academic post in Italy; and a pop star icon of the LGBT community, Denise Ho. Each was fined the equivalent of a few hundred euros.
The sentence was expected as, since the 2019 riots, the Chinese government has tightened its grip considerably and is making sure it wins all its cases. When questioned at the end of the trial, Cardinal Zen did not seek to highlight his membership in the Catholic Church but explained quietly: “I am a Hong Kong citizen who supported this humanitarian work.”