December 4, 2022

Hong Kong CNN —

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 a relief 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 is used in part to pay for protesters’ legal and medical expenses was decided by the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts.

The silver-haired cardinal, who appeared in court with a walking stick, and his co-defendants had all denied the charges.

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 as it prepares to renew a controversial deal with Beijing on bishop appointments in China.

Outside the court, Zen told reporters he hoped people would not tie his conviction to freedom of religion.

“I’ve seen many people abroad concerned about the arrest of a cardinal. It has nothing to do with freedom of religion. I’m part of the fund. (Hong Kong) has seen no damage (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, the secretary of the fund, was fined HK$2,500 ($320).

All were initially charged with collaborating with foreign forces under the controversial, Beijing-backed national security law, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Those charges were dropped and they instead faced a lesser charge under the Societies Ordinance, a centuries-old colonial-era law carrying fines of up to HK$10,000 (US$1,274) but no jail time for first-time offenders becomes.

The court heard in September that the legal fund had raised the equivalent of $34.4 million through 100,000 deposits.

In addition to providing financial aid to protesters, the fund has also been used to fund pro-democracy rallies, such as paying for audio equipment used in street protests in 2019 to resist Beijing’s tighter grip.

Although Zen and the other five defendants were spared charges under the national security law, legislation imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing in June 2020 to quell the protests has been repeatedly used to curb dissent.

Since the law was imposed, most of the city’s prominent pro-democracy figures have been either arrested or exiled, while several independent media outlets and non-governmental organizations have been shut down.

Hong Kong’s government has repeatedly dismissed criticism that the law – which criminalizes acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces – has stifled freedoms, instead claiming it restored order in the city after the protest movement of restored in 2019.

Hong Kong’s indictment of one of Asia’s most senior cleric has brought Beijing’s relationship with the Holy See into focus. CNN reached out to the Vatican for comment on Zen’s case on Thursday, but received no response.

Zen has spoken out strongly against a controversial 2018 deal between the Vatican and China on bishop appointments. Earlier, both sides had demanded the final say on bishop appointments in mainland China, where religious activity is tightly controlled and sometimes banned.

Born to Catholic parents in Shanghai in 1932, Zen fled to Hong Kong with his family as a teenager to escape the threat of communist rule. He was ordained a priest in 1961 and appointed Bishop of Hong Kong in 2002 before retiring in 2009.

Known to his followers as the “conscience of Hong Kong,” Zen has long been a prominent advocate of democracy, human rights, and religious freedom. He has been at the forefront of some of the city’s most important protests, from the mass rally against national security legislation in 2003 to the “umbrella movement” that called for universal suffrage in 2014.