Cardinal Joseph Zen and five other Hong Kong activists have been found guilty of failing to register a multimillion-dollar support fund they established to help people arrested in 2019’s pro-democracy protests get legal support.
A court on Friday fined five of the group 4,000 Hong Kong dollars ($512) for failing to properly register the fund as a society, while a sixth was fined a smaller amount.
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As well as Zen, 90, the others convicted included popular singer Denise Ho, and veteran human rights lawyer Margaret Ng.
All had pleaded not guilty, setting up a two-month trial. They are among thousands arrested in connection with the 2019 protests, which began with mass marches against a government plan to allow extradition to mainland China but evolved into sometimes violent protests calling for more democracy in the former British colony.
Under Hong Kong’s Societies Ordinance, a society must apply for registration or an exemption from registration within one month of being set up.
The defence questioned whether the law even applied to the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which helped pay legal and medical costs for people arrested during the 2019 unrest, but Magistrate Ada Yim found that it did.
Yim said “the only and irresistible inference” from the trial was that the fund was a “local society” and so subject to the rules.
“Considering the social and political events in recent years, if a society has connections with political groups … the society’s operations may affect public order, public peace and national security,” Yim added.
The six were arrested in May under sweeping national security legislation that Beijing imposed on the territory in 2020. The group has yet to face charges under that law, which can carry a sentence of up to life in jail.
Speaking outside the court, Ng said it was the first time anyone had been convicted for failing to register a society, adding that it was “extremely important in relation to the freedom of association in Hong Kong”.
Also outside the court, Zen told reporters not to place too much emphasis on his religious identity. “I am a Hong Kong citizen who supported this humanitarian work,” he said. “Hong Kong has not seen any damage to its religious freedom,” he stressed.
The group acted as the fund’s trustees. Secretary Sze Ching-wee was also charged and fined 2,500 Hong Kong dollars ($320).
The fund disbanded last October after national security police demanded it hand over operational details, including information about its donors and beneficiaries.
Prosecutors revealed during the trial the fund had raised as much as 270 million Hong Kong dollars ($34.6m) in more than 100,000 separate donations.