HONG KONG (AP) — A 90-year-old Roman Catholic cardinal and five others in Hong Kong were fined after they were found guilty Friday of failing to register a now-defunct fund meant to help people arrested in widespread protests three years ago.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, a retired bishop and vocal advocate for the city’s democracy, arrived in court dressed in black and using a walking stick. He was first arrested in May on suspicion of cooperating with foreign forces under the Beijing-imposed National Security Law. His arrest caused a shock in the Catholic community, although the Vatican only stated that it was closely monitoring the development of the situation.
While Zen and the other activists on trial have not yet been indicted on national security charges, they are accused of failing to properly register the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which helped pay medical and legal fees for arrested protesters starting in 2019. operation in October 2021.
Zen, along with singer Denise Ho, scholar Hui Po Keung, former pro-democracy MPs Margaret Ng and Cyd Ho, were trustees of the fund. They were each fined 4,000 Hong Kong dollars ($512). A sixth defendant, Sze Ching-wee, was the fund’s secretary and was fined HK$2,500 (US$320).
The Ordinance on Societies requires local organizations to register or apply for exemption within one month of establishment. Those who fail to do so face a fine of up to HK$10,000 (US$1,273), excluding jail time, after the first conviction.
Delivering the judgment, Chief Justice Ada Yim ruled that the trust was considered a registrable organization because it was not exclusively for charitable purposes.
The ruling is significant because it is the first time residents have had to face charges under the ordinance for failing to register, Ng told reporters after the hearing.
“Very important is the effect on other people, on many, many citizens who are united to do one thing or another, and what will happen to them,” said the veteran lawyer. “It is also extremely important in relation to freedom of association in Hong Kong under the Companies Ordinance.”
But Zen said his case should not be associated with religious freedom in the city. “I have not seen any erosion of religious freedom in Hong Kong,” he said.
The 2019 protests were sparked by a since-rescinded law that would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to China. Critics worried that the suspects would disappear in 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 passed in 2020, with many activists arrested or jailed in the semi-autonomous Chinese city. Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
The impact of the law has also dented faith in the future of the international financial hub, with a growing number of young professionals responding to reduced freedoms by emigrating abroad.