A 90-year-old former bishop and outspoken critic of the ruling Chinese Communist Party was found guilty on Friday of a charge related to his role in a relief fund for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests in 2019.
Cardinal Joseph Zen and five others, including Cantopop singer Denise Ho, violated the Societies Ordinance by failing to register the now defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which was used in part to pay protesters’ legal and medical fees, West Kowloon magistrates. The courts have ruled.
The silver-haired cardinal, who appeared in court with a cane, and his co-defendants had all denied the charge.
The case is seen as a marker of political freedom in hong kong during 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 over the appointment of bishops in China.
Outside of court, Zen told reporters he hoped people wouldn’t link his sentencing to religious freedom.
“I have seen many people abroad worry about the arrest of a cardinal. It is not related to religious freedom. I am part of the fund. (Hong Kong) did not see damage (to) his religious freedom,” Zen said.
Zen and four other fund administrators – 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 secretary of the fund, was fined HK$2,500 ($320).
All had initially been charged under the controversial Beijing-backed national security law with collusion with foreign forces, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. 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 no prison sentence for first-time offenders.
The court heard in September that the legal fund had raised the equivalent of $34.4 million through 100,000 deposits.
As well as providing financial assistance to protesters, the fund has also been used to sponsor pro-democracy rallies, such as payment for audio equipment used in 2019 during street protests to resist Beijing’s tightening grip.
Although Zen and the five other defendants have not been charged under the national security law, legislation imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong in June 2020 in an effort to quell protests has been used repeatedly 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, saying instead it has restored order in the city after the 2019 protest movement.
Hong Kong’s pursuit of one of Asia’s top clerics has shed light on relations between Beijing and the Holy See. CNN contacted the Vatican on Thursday to comment on Zen’s case but did not receive a response.
Zen firmly opposed a controversial deal reached in 2018 between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops. Previously, the two sides had demanded the final say on bishop appointments 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 impending communist regime as a teenager. He was ordained a priest in 1961 and appointed Bishop of Hong Kong in 2002, before retiring in 2009.
Known as the “conscience of Hong Kong” among his followers, Zen has long been a prominent advocate for democracy, human rights and religious freedom. He has been on the front lines of some of the city’s most prominent protests, from the mass rally against national security legislation in 2003 to the “Umbrella Movement” demanding universal suffrage in 2014.