Hong Kong Catholic cardinal denies charges over relief fund

·2 min read

HONG KONG (AP) — Arrested former Hong Kong Catholic leader Cardinal Joseph Zen and five others denied charges on Tuesday that they failed to register a relief fund aimed at assisting protesters who faced legal costs during 2019 anti-government protests.

The six, who also include singer Denise Ho and former opposition lawmakers Margaret Ng and Cyd Ho, were arrested two weeks ago under a sweeping National Security Law on suspicion of collusion with foreign forces but were not charged at that time.

They appeared at Hong Kong’s West Kowloon court on Tuesday and were charged with failing to register the fund as an organization with police — an offense that could incur a fine of up to 10,000 Hong Kong dollars ($1,275).

Zen and the five others were trustees of the now-defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which was set up in 2019 to assist protesters who required financial assistance with legal or medical costs.

It is unclear if authorities plan to charge them with additional national security offenses at a later date. Their trial is to begin Sept. 19 and take place over five days.

Cardinal Zen’s arrest was condemned internationally, with the Vatican saying that it was closely monitoring developments.

Police launched an investigation into the fund on national security grounds in September 2021. A month later, the fund said it would stop operating, citing the city’s deteriorating political environment.

In recent years, scores of pro-democracy activists have been arrested under the National Security Law imposed on the city by Beijing in 2020 following the protests, including veteran lawmaker Martin Lee and publisher Jimmy Lai. The law outlaws subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign collusion, and has been used to arrest over 150 people in the city.

Most of the city’s outspoken pro-democracy activists are either currently behind bars or have fled the city.

Pro-democracy news outlets such as Apple Daily and Stand News have been forced to close following national security investigations. Electoral laws have also been amended to ensure that only “patriots” are allowed to govern the city, effectively preventing pro-democracy supporters from taking office.

Separately on Tuesday, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong said it will not hold Masses this year to mark the anniversary of a bloody military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, over concerns that such events could violate the National Security Law.

In past years, events Masses and candlelight vigils have been held in Hong Kong to mark the anniversary. Authorities have banned the annual candlelight vigil for the past two years, citing public health risks.