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 emergency fund for Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protests.
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 expenses, the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts ruled.
The silver-haired cardinal, who appeared in court with a cane, and his co-defendants had all denied the charges.
The case is seen as a sign of political freedom in Hong Kong amid its continued 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 of court, Zen told reporters he hoped people wouldn’t associate his conviction with religious freedom.
“I saw many people abroad are concerned about the arrest of a cardinal. It has nothing to do with religious freedom. I am part of the fund. (Hong Kong) has seen no damage to (the) freedom of religion,” 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, the fund’s secretary, was fined HK$2,500 ($320).
All were initially charged under the controversial Beijing-backed national security law for conspiring with foreign troops, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Those charges were dropped and instead faced a lesser charge under the Societies Ordinance, a centuries-old colonial-era law punishable by fines of up to HK$10,000 ($1,274), but no jail time for new 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 support to protesters, the fund was also used to sponsor pro-democracy rallies, such as paying for used audio equipment in 2019 during street protests to resist Beijing’s tightening.
While Zen and the other five defendants were not charged under the national security law, the legislation Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in June 2020 in an attempt to quell the protests has been used repeatedly to curb dissent.
Since the law was introduced, most of the city’s prominent pro-democracy figures have either been arrested or exiled, while several independent media outlets and non-governmental organizations have 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, claiming instead to have restored order to the city after the protest movement of 2019.
Hong Kong’s persecution of one of Asia’s most prominent pastors has brought the relationship between Beijing and the Holy See into sharp focus. CNN contacted the Vatican on Thursday for comment on Zen’s case, but has not received a response.
Zen has vehemently opposed a controversial agreement reached in 2018 between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops. Earlier, both sides had demanded the final say on the appointment of bishops in mainland China, where religious activities are heavily controlled and sometimes banned.
Born to Catholic parents in Shanghai in 1932, Zen fled to Hong Kong with his family to escape impending Communist rule as a teenager. He was ordained a priest in 1961 and made Bishop of Hong Kong in 2002, before retiring in 2009.
Known as the “Hong Kong conscience” among his supporters, 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 major protests, from the 2003 mass rally against national security legislation to the “Umbrella Movement” demanding universal suffrage in 2014.