ROME — A Hong Kong court has sentenced 90-year-old retired Cardinal Joseph Zen as part of its ongoing crackdown on dissent.
Zen was arrested last May under a new national security law when he tried to board a flight to Germany along with several other prominent activists, including pop singer Denise Ho, lawyer Margaret Ng and scientist Hui Po-keung.
The cardinal was found guilty on Friday of failing to register a fund to support pro-democracy protesters. He was fined approximately $500, but was spared jail time.
The case has attracted global attention as it marks the first time evidence has been collected using China’s controversial national security law created to quell pro-democracy dissent.
The pro-democracy fund, which has since been dissolved, was used to pay legal aid for the thousands of protesters arrested during weekly marches in 2019. The violent demonstrations dominated the headlines before the COVID pandemic put an end to public gatherings. Prosecutors said the fund raised about $34.4 million through 100,000 deposits, which they claimed were tied to foreign entities and, as such, illegal.
The pro-democracy protesters marched against China imposing the national security law, which they say was a way to prosecute dissidents arrested in Hong Kong in mainland China. The Hong Kong government says the law, which criminalizes subversion, terrorism, secession and collusion with foreign entities, has restored order to the city.
Zen, who is retired, attended the hearings with a cross around his neck and spoke to reporters outside the court. “I saw that many people abroad are concerned about the arrest of a cardinal,” he said, according to TUSEN. “It has nothing to do with religious freedom. I am part of the fund. Hong Kong has seen no damage to its religious freedom.”
Zen is an outspoken opponent of an agreement the Holy See has made with China about who decides which bishops are appointed. The practice of Catholicism is closely monitored in mainland China, with a large proportion of Catholics secretly worshiping in underground churches unrelated to the government-mandated Catholic churches.
When Zen was arrested, the Vatican issued a statement of concern for his safety. “The Holy See has learned with concern the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest and is closely following the development of the situation,” the press service said in a statement. The Vatican did not immediately release a statement on the convictions.