A 90-year-old former bishop and outspoken critic of China’s ruling Communist Party was found guilty on 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, breached the Companies Ordinance by failing to register the now-defunct “612 Humanitarian Relief Fund”, which was partly used 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-defendants denied guilt.
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 deal with Beijing over the appointment of bishops in China. .
Outside the court, Zen told reporters that he hoped people would not associate his conviction with religious freedom.
“I saw that many people overseas are concerned about the cardinal’s arrest. It has nothing to do with religious freedom. I am part of the fund. (Hong Kong) saw no harm (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 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 were originally charged under a controversial Beijing-backed national security law with colluding with foreign powers, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Those charges were dropped and they instead faced a lesser charge under the Societies Ordinance, a century-old colonial-era law punishable by a fine of up to HK$10,000 ($1,274) but no jail time for first 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 assistance to protesters, the fund was also used to sponsor pro-democracy rallies, such as paying for used audio equipment. in 2019 during street protests against Beijing’s tightening grip.
Although Zen and five other defendants were spared charges under the National Security Law, the legislation, which Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in June 2020 in an attempt to quell protests, has been repeatedly used to curb 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 outlets and NGOs have been closed down.
Hong Kong’s government has repeatedly rejected criticism that the law – which criminalises acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers – stifles freedoms, saying it has instead restored order to the city after the 2019 protest movement.
Hong Kong’s prosecution of one of Asia’s top clerics has thrown the relationship between Beijing and the Holy See into sharp focus. CNN reached out to the Vatican for comment on Zeno’s case on Thursday, 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 claimed the final say in the appointment of bishops in mainland China, where religious activities are strictly monitored and sometimes banned.
Born to Catholic parents in Shanghai in 1932, Zen fled with his family to Hong Kong as a teenager to escape looming communist rule. He was ordained a priest in 1961 and became the Bishop of Hong Kong in 2002, retiring in 2009.
Known among his supporters as the “conscience of Hong Kong”, 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 rally against national security legislation in 2003 to the “Umbrella Movement” demanding universal suffrage in 2014.