Cardinal Joseph Zen and five others were found guilty on Friday of failing to register a fund that helped pay for the legal fees and medical treatments of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters.
The 90-year-old cardinal and former bishop of Hong Kong was fined about US$500 (HK$4,000). Each of the other trustees of the now-defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund was fined the same amount.
Cardinal Zen told reporters after the verdict on Nov. 25: “Although I’m a religious figure, I hope this (case) won’t be associated with our freedom of religion. It’s not related.”
The cardinal appeared at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court wearing a pectoral cross, clerical color, and a facemask. He used a cane to walk.
“I’m just a Hong Kong citizen who strongly supports providing humanitarian assistance,” he said, according to Reuters.
Cardinal Zen’s trial from September to November focused on whether it was necessary for the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund trustees to apply for local society registration between 2019 and 2021.
The cardinal’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.”
Magistrate Ada Yim ruled on Friday that the fund was a “local society” and was subject to its rules, but she did not apply the maximum penalty for the offense of a roughly US$1,200 fine.
Yim said in her judgment that the fund “had political objectives and thus it was not established solely for charitable purposes.”
Margaret Ng, a lawyer and fund trustee who was convicted with Cardinal Zen, told reporters outside of the court that the ruling was significant because it is the first time that anyone in Hong Kong had been convicted under the Societies Ordinance for failing to register a society.
“It is also extremely important about the freedom of association in Hong Kong under Societies Ordinance,” Ng said, according to AP.
Along with Zen and Ng, the other convicted trustees of the fund were singer-activist Denise Ho, cultural studies scholar Hui Po-Keung, and ex-legislator Cyd Ho.
Sze Ching-wee, the former secretary of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, was also charged on Friday with a smaller fine. Sze was arrested earlier in November under Hong Kong’s national security law. He has been released on bail, and is required to report to the police in February.
The cardinal and the other trustees of the fund were arrested in May along with other democracy activists under Hong Kong’s strict national security law and released on bail shortly after.
The South China Morning Post reported that the ruling in Cardinal Zen’s trial can be seen as “a prelude to more legal troubles … as national security police continue to probe into the group’s alleged collusion with foreign forces.”