Cardinal Zen, activists face Hong Kong court over legal aid fund

90-year-old former bishop of Hong Kong charged with improperly registering a support fund for those arrested in 2019 protests.

Cardinal Zen, walking with a stick, outside court in Hong Kong
Cardinal Joseph Zen, one of Asia's most senior Catholic clergy, arrived at court using a walking stick for support [Peter Parks/AFP]

A 90-year-old Catholic cardinal and five others have gone on trial in Hong Kong for allegedly failing to register a now-defunct fund to help provide legal aid to people arrested in the 2019 pro-democracy protests.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, the retired bishop of Hong Kong, was arrested in May together with others including singer Denise Ho and barrister Margaret Ng under the national security law.

They have since been charged for failing to properly register the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund and appeared in court on Monday.

Zen, together with Ho, Ng as well as cultural studies scholar Hui Po Keung and former legislator Cyd Ho, were trustees of the fund. A sixth defendant, Sze Ching-wee, was the fund’s secretary.

All have pleaded not guilty.

None of the defendants spoke to reporters on their way into West Kowloon court on Monday morning.

If convicted they face a fine of up to 10,000 Hong Kong dollars ($1,274) but no jail time.

“Colluding with foreign forces”, the security law offence for which they were originally arrested, carries a potential life term.

The 612 fund helped pay medical and legal fees for arrested protesters during the 2019 protests but was wound up last year after the national security police demanded information on its operations including its donors and beneficiaries.

The Societies Ordinance requires local organisations to register or apply for an exemption within a month of their establishment.

Prosecutors say Zen and the others failed to do so.

The case has shocked many in Hong Kong, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

The Vatican, which is working to renew a controversial agreement with Beijing over the appointment of bishops in mainland China, has been muted on Zen’s arrest, stating only that it was monitoring the development of the situation closely.

Shanghai-born Zen, who is now retired, has been critical of the 2018 deal calling it a “sellout” of China’s underground Catholics who have faced persecution for remaining loyal to Rome and refusing to recognise the Communist Party-sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association.

China imposed the national security law on Hong Kong in the wake of the 2019 protests, which sometimes turned violent.

Many of the city’s most prominent supporters of democracy, including elected politicians, have gone into exile while dozens of civil society groups have closed down.

Amnesty International, which shut its office in the territory last year, said the law has “decimated” freedoms in Hong Kong.

Beijing and the Hong Kong administration say it has restored stability.

The court is not sitting on consecutive days and the trial is expected to conclude in early November.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies