HONG KONG (AP) — A 90-year-old Roman Catholic cardinal and five others in Hong Kong have been fined after being found guilty on Friday of failing to register a now-defunct fund that aimed to help those arrested during widespread protests three years ago.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, a retired bishop and a strong proponent of democracy in the city, arrived at court dressed in black attire and wielding a cane. He was first arrested in May on suspicion of collusion with foreign forces under a national security law imposed by Beijing. His arrest sent shockwaves through the Catholic community, although the Vatican only said it was monitoring developments closely.
While Zen and other activists at trial have yet to be charged with national security charges, they have been accused of failing to properly register the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which helped pay the costs. medical and legal protesters arrested beginning in 2019. It ceased operations in October 2021.
Zen, alongside singer Denise Ho, researcher Hui Po Keung, former pro-democracy lawmakers Margaret Ng and Cyd Ho, served as trustees of the fund. They were each fined 4,000 Hong Kong dollars ($512). A sixth defendant, Sze Ching-wee, was the secretary of the fund and was fined HK$2,500 ($320).
The Societies Ordinance requires local organizations to register or apply for an exemption within one month of their establishment. Those who fail to do so face a fine of up to HK$10,000 ($1,273), without jail time, on the first conviction.
Delivering the verdict, Chief Magistrate Ada Yim ruled that the fund was considered an organization obliged to register because it was not purely for charitable purposes.
The judgment is significant because it is the first time residents have faced charges under the ordinance for failing to register, Ng told reporters after the hearing.
“The effect on others, on the very many citizens who are associated to do one thing or another, and what will happen to them, is very important,” the veteran lawyer said. “It is also extremely important for freedom of association in Hong Kong under the Companies Ordinance.”
But Zen said her case should not be tied to the city’s religious freedoms. “I haven’t seen any erosion of religious freedoms in Hong Kong,” he said.
The 2019 protests were sparked by a since-withdrawn bill that would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China. Critics feared the suspects could disappear into China’s opaque and often abusive legal system. The opposition turned into months of violent unrest in the city.
The national security law has crippled Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement since it was enacted in 2020, with scores of activists arrested or imprisoned in the semi-autonomous Chinese city. Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese control in 1997.
The law’s impact has also undermined confidence in the future of the international financial center, with growing numbers of young professionals reacting to diminished freedoms by emigrating overseas.
Kanis Leung, Associated Press