A 90-year-old former bishop and outspoken critic of China’s ruling Communist Party was found guilty on Friday of charges related to his role in a relief fund for the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Cardinal Chan and five others, including Cantopop singer Denise Ho, violated the associations ordinance by failing to register the now-defunct “612 Humanitarian Relief Fund”, which was partly used to pay protesters’ legal and medical expenses, West Kowloon magistrate court ruling.
The silver-haired cardinal, who appeared on crutches, and his co-accused both denied the charges.
The case is seen as a sign of political freedom in Hong Kong amid an ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy movements, and comes at a sensitive time for the Vatican, which is preparing to renew a controversial agreement with Beijing on the appointment of bishops in China.
Outside court, Zeng told reporters he hoped people would not link his beliefs to religious freedom.
“I see that many people overseas are concerned about the arrest of the cardinal. This has nothing to do with religious freedom. I am part of the fund. Religious freedom in (Hong Kong) has not been compromised,” Zeng said.
Zen and four other trustees of the fund — singer Ho, barrister Margaret Ng, academic Hui Po Keung and politician Cyd Ho — were fined HK$4,000 ($510) each.
A sixth defendant, Sze Ching-wee, who was the fund’s secretary, was fined HK$2,500 (US$320).
All were initially charged with colluding with foreign powers under a controversial Beijing-backed national security law, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Those charges were dropped and they were replaced with lesser charges under the Societies Ordinance, a century-old colonial-era law that carries fines of up to 10,000 Hong Kong dollars ($1,274), but first-time offenders will not Sentenced to prison.
The legal fund raised the equivalent of $34.4 million through 100,000 deposits, the court heard in September.
In addition to providing financial aid to protesters, the fund is used to sponsor pro-democracy rallies, such as paying for audio equipment used During street protests against Beijing’s tightening controls in 2019.
While Zen and five other defendants have been exempted from charges under the national security law, legislation Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in June 2020 to quell protests has been repeatedly used to stifle dissent.
Since the law was implemented, most of the city’s prominent democrats have either been arrested or exiled abroad, and some independent media outlets and NGOs have been shut down.
Hong Kong’s government has repeatedly denied criticism that the law – which criminalizes acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers – stifles freedom and claims it restored order to the city after the 2019 protest movement.
The Hong Kong prosecution of one of Asia’s most senior clerics has brought the relationship between Beijing and the Holy See into focus. CNN reached out to the Vatican for comment on Zen’s case on Thursday but has not yet heard back.
Has strongly opposed a controversial agreement between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops in 2018. Both sides have previously demanded the final say on the appointment of bishops in mainland China, where religious activity is strictly monitored and sometimes banned.
Born in Shanghai in 1932 to Catholic parents, Zen fled with his family to Hong Kong as a teenager to escape looming communist rule. He was ordained a priest in 1961, became bishop of Hong Kong in 2002, and retired in 2009.
Once dubbed “the conscience of Hong Kong” among his supporters, he has long been a prominent advocate for democracy, human rights and religious freedom. He has been at the front of some of the city’s most important protests, from a 2003 mass rally against national security legislation to the 2014 Umbrella Movement calling for universal suffrage.