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ROME – In a highly anticipated ruling already making the rounds in international media, Chinese Cardinal Joseph Zen and five others were convicted Friday of failing to register a now-defunct relief fund that offered assistance to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
Zen, along with barrister Margaret Ng, ex-lawmaker Cyd Ho, scholar Hui Po-keung, singer-activist Denise Ho, and Sze Ching-wee, the fund’s former secretary, appeared in front of Permanent Magistrate Ada Yim Shun-yee at West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts Friday to hear the court’s verdict.
At a Nov. 25 hearing, Yim said that after considering the size of the fund and the period over which it operated without proper registration, the defendants were found guilty, and all received fines.
Sze was ordered to pay HK$2,500 (US$ 320), while the rest, including Zen, were ordered to pay HK$ 4,000 (US$ 500).
Zen, 90, is the former bishop of Hong Kong, and was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II and has long been one of the Catholic Church’s most influential figures in China. He has been a leading critic of Pope Francis’s China policy and the pope’s provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops, gaining international attention for his rebuke of the deal as ill-conceived and a “sellout” of Chinese Christians.
He was arrested in May along with Denise Ho, Cyd Ho, Ng, and Hui under a Beijing-imposed national security law for allegedly colluding with foreign forces and were released on bail. Sze was arrested in November over the same charge and was also granted bail.
The group was accused of failing to apply for local society registration for the now defunct 612 Humanitarian Fund between July 16, 2019, and Oct. 31, 2021, under Hong Kong’s Societies Ordinance law.
The fund, for which they all held leadership positions, provided financial and legal aid to pro-democracy protesters who took to the streets in 2019 to oppose a controversial bill allowing extradition to mainland China.
Hong Kong’s national security law, imposed by Beijing despite mass protests against it, went into effect June 30, 2020, and bans activities described as treason, secession, sedition, subversion, foreign interference and terrorism. It also stipulates that whenever it deems it necessary, the Chinese Central government in Beijing can establish agencies to help Hong Kong fulfill its security requirements.
A semi-autonomous region granted certain freedoms the rest of China is not afforded as part of China’s “one country, two systems” policy, Hong Kong was required to introduce security measures after the British returned the territory to China in 1997.
However, many pro-democracy activists and national leaders have criticized the law as stifling freedoms promised to Hong Kong when it came back under Chinese control, with some voicing fear that articles in Hong Kong’s Basic Law – a quasi-mini constitution in place in Hong Kong since the British returned the territory to China in 1997, and which protects freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom to assemble – would be dismissed.
The trial for Zen and the other defendants was set to begin in September but was delayed after the presiding judge contracted COVID-19, and formally began in October.
According to local newspaper Hong Kong Free Press, at Friday’s hearing Yim noted that under the Societies Ordinance, an organization must apply for either registration or an exemption from registration within a month of its establishment.
Despite the defense’s attempts to dispute the ordinance, Yim said the 612 Humanitarian Fund did not meet any of the criteria for an exemption, and accused the defendants of establishing the organization for “political aims.”
Yim also ruled that each of the defendants could be regarded as “office-bearers” of the fund, since they were charged with administrative and financial management, and were therefore liable for failing to register it as a society.
In the trial, the defense team had argued that the Societies Ordinance was unconstitutional for “disproportionally” restricting peoples’ right to assembly, however, Yim dismissed this argument, saying Friday that the right to assembly was not absolute and could be curtailed in the interest of national security, public safety, and social order.
Yim also ruled that the information required for the registration of the fund was neither complex nor excessive, and that the public had a right to know basic information about the societies present in the territory, saying it is the government’s job to ensure that this data is available.
“The court, therefore, came to view that the purposes of the registration system were legitimate, and that the relevant requirements were reasonable,” Yim said.
In remarks to the press after the hearing, Margaret Ng said the case was “not just about the six of us,” since it marked the first such charge under the Societies Ordinance, and that the consequences of the case would be important going forward, especially in terms of freedom of assembly.
She said the defendants would now take some time to reflect and seek counsel on the judgement before deciding on their next move.
In comments to the press, Zen told reporters not to place too much emphasis on his status within the Catholic Church, saying, “I am a Hong Kong citizen who supported this humanitarian work.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen