Hong Kong cardinal in court over protest defense fund

Xinqi Su and Holmes Chan, Agence France-Presse

Posted at May 24 2022 07:12 PM

Scholar Hui Po-keung (L), Cardinal Joseph Zen (2-L), singer-activist Denise Ho (2-R), and prominent Hong Kong barrister Margaret Ng (R) arrive at the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts in Hong Kong, China, on May 24, 2022. Jerome Favre, EPA-EFE
Scholar Hui Po-keung (L), Cardinal Joseph Zen (2-L), singer-activist Denise Ho (2-R), and prominent Hong Kong barrister Margaret Ng (R) arrive at the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts in Hong Kong, China, on May 24, 2022. Jerome Favre, EPA-EFE

Ninety-year-old retired Catholic cardinal Joseph Zen appeared in a Hong Kong court Tuesday charged with failing to properly register a protest defense fund, after he was initially arrested under the city's national security law. 

Zen, one of Asia's highest-ranking Catholic clerics, was among five prominent democracy advocates -- including activist and singer Denise Ho and veteran human rights barrister Margaret Ng -- who were detained earlier this month. 

The group acted as trustees of a now-defunct fund that helped pay legal and medical costs for those arrested during huge and sometimes violent democracy protests three years ago.

They were arrested for "conspiracy to collude with foreign forces" but have not yet been charged with that offence, which can carry a life sentence under the sweeping security law imposed by Beijing in 2020. 

Instead, all five of the fund's former trustees and its secretary were charged Tuesday with failing to register it as a "society" with police -- a non-national security offence that can incur a fine of up to HK$10,000 (US$1,274) for a first conviction. 

Each of the defendants, apart from activist Cyd Ho, who is already serving a jail sentence for unauthorised assembly, were present in court on Tuesday. All entered a plea of not guilty. 

The trial will begin September 19, with the prosecution warning they have 10 boxes of exhibits and eight hours of video footage to support their case. 

The investigation into the "612 Humanitarian Relief Fund" was triggered when one of the group, cultural studies scholar Hui Po-keung, was intercepted at Hong Kong's airport on May 10 as he tried to leave to take up an academic post in Europe.

The investigation of the fund has also led to the first complaint made by the city's national security police about "professional misconduct" by the lawyers and barristers hired by the fund's beneficiaries. 

- 'Classic smearing campaign' - 

Diplomats from multiple European countries including Germany, France, Sweden and Italy attended Tuesday's hearing.

Zen's arrest in particular has triggered outrage from Western nations, who have accused China of eviscerating the freedoms it once promised Hong Kong. 

But on Monday, the city's security minister told local media the criticism was a "classic smearing campaign". 

"To my understanding, the Vatican is a place to pursue justice and peace. If we did not act in accordance with the law because of one's role in the Holy See, then I think it would actually breach the Vatican’s principle of justice," said Chris Tang in an interview with the South China Morning Post.

The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong issued a statement after the hearing saying they would "closely monitor the development of the incident", adding that Zen was "always in our prayers". 

Hong Kong's vicar general, Joseph Chan, was present in court but said he was not there as a representative of the Diocese. 

"He (Zen) was my teacher, so I came," he told AFP. 

Chan said he is mainly worried about Zen’s health but that the nonagenarian has so far appeared in good spirits.

The cardinal has arranged a nighttime mass to pray for China on Tuesday night. 

- Tai jailed for ads -

In a separate case on Tuesday, another high-profile democracy campaigner, Benny Tai, was jailed for 10 months over a 2016 media campaign around the city's legislative elections. 

Tai, a legal scholar, had earlier pleaded guilty to breaching Hong Kong laws limiting who can place election advertisements. 

Despite not being a candidate himself, Tai had promoted a way of coordinating voters to win the most seats for the city's democrats, District Judge Anthony Kwok said.

"(Tai's) actions could have damaged the election's fairness and disadvantaged pro-establishment and other candidates," Kwok said.

The judge said a deterrent sentence was needed given the seriousness of Tai's acts, though he conceded the academic did not act for personal gain and had not promoted specific candidates. 

Tai is already in custody as he is among a group of 47 democrats arrested for subversion under the national security law.