A 90-year-old former bishop and outspoken critic of China's ruling Communist Party was found guilty Friday of a charge relating to his role in a relief fund for Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests in 2019.
Cardinal Joseph Zen and five others, including the Cantopop singer Denise Ho, contravened the Societies Ordinance by failing to register the now-defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund that was partly used to pay protesters legal and medical fees, the West Kowloon Magistrates Courts ruled.
The silver-haired cardinal who appeared in court with a walking stick, and his co-defendants denied the charge.
The case is considered a sign of political freedom in Hong Kong during an ongoing crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, and comes at a sensitive time for the Vatican, which is about to renew a controversial deal with Beijing over the appointment of bishops in China.
Zen and four others singer Ho, the barrister Margaret Ng, scholar Hui Po Keung and politician Cyd Ho, who were trustees of the fund, were sentenced to fines of HK $4,000 $510 each.
A sixth defendant, Sze Ching-wee, was fined HK$2,500 $320, after being charged under the controversial Beijing-backed national security law for colluding with foreign forces, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. The charges were dropped and they were faced a lesser charge under the Societies Ordinance, a century-old colonial law punishable with fines of up to HK $10,000 $1,274 but not jail time for first-time offenders.
The legal fund raised the equivalent of $34.4 million through 100,000 deposits in September.
In addition to providing financial aid to protesters, the fund was also used to sponsor pro-democracy rallies, such as paying for audio equipment used in 2019 during street protests to resist Beijing's tightening grip.
Although Zen and the other five defendants were spared from being charged under the national security law, the legislation imposed by Beijing over Hong Kong in June 2020 in a bid to quell the protests has been used to curb dissent.
Since the enactment of the law, most prominent pro-democracy figures have either been arrested or gone into exile while several independent media outlets and non-government organizations have been shuttered.
The Hong Kong government has repeatedly denied criticizing the law that criminalizes acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces has stifled freedoms, and has restored order in the city after the 2019 protest movement.
The prosecution of one of Asia's most senior clergyman in Hong Kong has brought the relationship between Beijing and the Holy See into sharp focus.
Zen opposes a controversial agreement between the Vatican and China in 2018 regarding the appointment of bishops. Both sides had demanded the final say on bishop appointments in mainland China, where religious activities are heavily monitored and sometimes banned.
Zen was born in 1932 in Shanghai to Catholic parents, he fled to Hong Kong with his family to escape the looming Communist rule as a teenager. He was ordained a priest in 1961 and became a Bishop of Hong Kong in 2002 before retiring in 2009.
Zen has been a prominent advocate for democracy, human rights and religious freedom, and is known as the conscience of Hong Kong among his supporters. He has been on the front lines of some of the city's most important protests, from the mass rally against national security legislation in 2003 to the Umbrella Movement demanding universal suffrage in 2014.