HONG KONG — After only two days, the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court adjourned the trial of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, 90, and four co-defendants, until Oct. 26.
The trial began Sept. 26 and had been scheduled for five days, but the magistrate adjourned the trial when defense lawyers attempted to cross-examine police witnesses called by the prosecution.
The outspoken cardinal, retired bishop of Hong Kong, was detained May 11 under the Beijing-imposed national security law. He and his co-defendants were then charged with failing to properly register their 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which offered financial, legal and psychological help to people arrested during the 2019 protest movement.
They have pleaded not guilty.
The prosecution said the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund had raised US$34.4 million and that some of the money was used for “political activities and noncharity events,” including funding protest groups.
The defense countered that defendants had a right to form an association under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution that critics claim has been subverted in recent years by authorities in Beijing.
If found guilty, the defendants could each incur a fine of about $1,300.
Zen’s co-defendants are, like him, well known Hong Kong democracy activists: barrister Margaret Ng, academic Hui Po-keung, former lawmaker Cyd Ho — already in jail — and pop singer Denise Ho.
The prosecution said the defendants should have registered the fund within one month of starting its operation. When the defense tried to cross-examine prosecution witnesses, defense questions were overruled as irrelevant.
The trial was adjourned before the defense could call witnesses or make its case.
The trial and its adjournment come as the Chinese central government prepares to renew its two-year deal with the Vatican, for the second time, concerning the appointment of bishops. Vatican officials left Beijing Sept. 2, and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, has said a deal would be completed by the end of the year, but previous deals have been concluded in September and October.
Although no details of the agreement have been published, Zen has been a relentless critic of the deal since before it first was signed in 2018. He has described it as a “sellout” and says it has killed the unofficial or underground church community in China, whose leaders refuse to register with the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
The adjournment also places the trial after the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which selects officials to rule the country for the next five years; that begins Oct. 16. Officials in Beijing are moving to minimize any controversy ahead of the event.
The more serious charges that Cardinal Zen and his co-defendants face under the national security law are for “colluding with foreign forces.” They have yet to be indicted on that charge but, if they are, they can be extradited to mainland China for trial. Punishment ranges from three years to life imprisonment.
There has been speculation that officials in Beijing, which now directly control Hong Kong, would be happy to have Cardinal Zen found guilty of the current low-level charge to keep him on a tighter leash.
The Vatican has been largely silent on the charges and trial. But Cardinal Fernando Filoni, one of the Vatican top’s China experts, recently came out in support of his Hong Kong colleague in the Italian bishops’ newspaper Avvenire, saying he “is a man of God; at times intemperate, but submissive to the love of Christ.”
“He is an authentic Chinese. No one among those I have known, can, I say, be truly as loyal as he is,” Filoni wrote.