The 90-year-old cardinal, along with other prominent activists including local pop singer
and veteran barrister
failed to file paperwork for the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, a court ruled Friday. The now-defunct fund offered financial and legal assistance to people arrested during the protests that convulsed the city from mid-2019 until China imposed a sweeping national-security law on the semiautonomous territory in the summer of 2020.
Five defendants who were trustees of the fund were each fined about $512; the sixth, described to the court as a secretary, was fined $320, with no jail time. The offense carries a maximum fine of less than $1,300 on a first conviction—a minor penalty compared with those imposed in other protest-related prosecutions.
Still, the trial of the elderly cardinal and his co-defendants was a high-profile event, and used evidence subpoenaed under the national-security law. The hearings, stretched over a number of days from late September into November, drew supporters as well as some diplomats.
The prosecution was brought under Hong Kong’s colonial-era Societies Ordinance, introduced in 1911, which requires any group or organization with more than one individual to register with the police unless otherwise exempt. The ordinance outlaws organized-crime gangs and allows groups that are judged to pose security risks to Hong Kong or that have ties to foreign political organizations to be banned. The government used the legislation to outlaw a small pro-independence group in 2018.
said the purpose of the ordinance is to safeguard national or public security, public order and other people’s rights and freedoms. She ruled that it applies in this case because the fund had political objectives—rather than solely charitable purposes, which could have exempted it from registration.
Evidence also showed that the trustees shared the same beliefs and acted as important decision makers over the fund’s operations, she said in a 50-page judgment in Chinese.
The white-haired cardinal appeared in court with his walking stick, wearing a clerical collar and a cross around his neck. While Ms. Yim delivered the ruling, he took notes and occasionally clasped his hands around a headset he used to aid his hearing during the proceedings.
Cardinal Zen said he hoped the case wouldn’t become entangled with the question of religious freedom, saying the two aren’t related.
“I haven’t seen religious freedom being harmed in Hong Kong, so please don’t overly emphasize my status as a religious figure. I am a Hong Kong citizen in favor of humanitarian aid,” he told reporters after the verdict. “And of course I hope we can continue to enjoy religious freedom in Hong Kong just as we have before.”
Fellow defendant Ms. Ng, the barrister, said the case has extremely important implications for the freedom of association in Hong Kong. She added that they would study the lengthy judgment before deciding whether to appeal.
Defense lawyers had argued that the law’s intent should be taken into account. The ordinance was aimed at “disreputable” groups such as criminal gangs—known as triads in Hong Kong—and not unincorporated trusts. They also said the fund, simply as a sum of money, lacked structures that could qualify it as a group requiring registration.
Prosecutors argued that the ordinance was enacted to safeguard public order and even national security, which to achieve the original intention should be defined broadly and flexibly. The trustees had failed to register as a society—or apply for an exemption—as required by law, prosecutors said, adding that they had acted as the fund’s office-bearers and made decisions carried out decision-making roles such as approving funding and discussing operations.
Prosecutors also said that because the fund’s crowdfunding activities involved large amounts of money—tens of millions of dollars—it should be regulated under the ordinance so that the public could be assured of its legitimacy.
In May, Cardinal Zen and the fund’s other trustees were arrested over a separate allegation under the national-security law, though no formal charges have been filed. Police have said they were arrested over an alleged conspiracy to collude with foreign forces by asking for sanctions to be imposed on Hong Kong. That would be far more serious than the registration violation, carrying penalties of up to life in prison.
More than 200 people have been arrested under the law, with dozens in jail and awaiting trial. The protests were sparked by proposed legislation allowing people in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China for trial, but soon broadened into demands for greater democracy and more autonomy from Beijing.
Massive and peaceful rallies through the financial center went unheeded by the government, beyond suspending the extradition bill. Demonstrations later devolved into more-violent clashes, with pitched battles between riot police equipped with tear gas and rubber bullets and youths wielding bricks and Molotov cocktails.
Beijing and the Hong Kong government say the law has returned order and stability to the city. Critics say its sweeping provisions and severe penalties have effectively cudgeled political opponents and suppressed freedom of expression, violating Beijing’s pledge to allow the former British colony to maintain the civil rights it enjoyed under its “one country, two systems” arrangement with China.
The Vatican expressed concern about Cardinal Zen’s arrest at the time, but German Cardinal
later criticized the Holy See for insufficiently supporting the cardinal and said the church should be able to criticize “the powerful of this world”—including politicians who suppress human rights. Cardinal Zen had been a prominent critic of an agreement between Beijing and the Vatican that gives Chinese authorities a say in the appointment of Catholic bishops in China, a deal renewed last month.
The Vatican didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Francis X. Rocca contributed to this article.
Write to Elaine Yu at [email protected]
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