Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen was found guilty Friday of failing to register a pro-democracy charity in the Chinese territory and ordered to pay a $512 fine.
A court in the West Kowloon area of Hong Kong convicted Cardinal Zen, age 90, and other trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund of violating the Societies Ordinance, which requires local organizations to register or apply for an exemption within a month of their establishment.
The 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund was set up to help people who had been arrested during protests three years ago pay for medical and legal fees. The number 612 refers to June 12, 2019, the date of a major protest against a Beijing-sponsored extradition bill in Hong Kong. The fund has since shut down.
Cardinal Zen, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong and an outspoken advocate of religious freedom and civil liberties, was first arrested in May on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces under a Beijing-imposed National Security Law.
A number of trustees, including the cardinal, were each fined 4,000 Hong Kong dollars ($512). A sixth defendant, Sze Ching-wee, the fund’s secretary, was fined HK$2500 ($320) for his lesser role.
Zen’s lawyer, Robert Pang, argued in court last month that imposing “criminal sanctions on the failure to register must be an infringement of freedom of association,” according to Catholic News Agency.
Principal Magistrate Ada Yim said that the fund was not set up purely for charitable purposes but “clearly came into contact with matters of the public interest and zealously raised funds from the public to achieve their objectives.”
But she decided to impose a fine lower than the $1,200 for which the law calls.
According to former pro-democracy lawmaker and fellow defendant Margaret Ng, the case was the first time residents had to face a charge under the Societies Ordinance for failing to register.
“The effect to other people, to the many, many citizens who are associated together to do one thing or another, and what will happen to them, is very important,” Ng told reporters after the ruling, according to the Associated Press. “It is also extremely important about the freedom of association in Hong Kong under Societies Ordinance.”
Zen, however, said his case should not be linked with religious freedoms in the former British colony, which has been ruled by Beijing since 1997 but has enjoyed a degree of autonomy. “I haven’t seen any erosion of religious freedoms in Hong Kong,” he said.
The South China Morning Post reported that the 612 trustees, including Zen, could face more legal troubles “as national security police continue to probe into the group’s alleged collusion with foreign forces.”
On May 11 of this year, Matteo Bruni, Vatican spokesman, said to journalists that “the Holy See has learned with concern the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest and is following the development of the situation with extreme attention.”