Trial date set for Cardinal Joseph Zen, longtime critic of China’s communist regime

Former head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen
Former head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen | REUTERS/Bobby Yip/File Photo

A judge in Hong Kong has scheduled a five-day trial for 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, a longtime critic of China’s communist regime who was arrested in May for his role in a now-defunct humanitarian relief organization that helped people who participated in the large-scale 2019 pro-democracy protests.

Magistrate Ada Yim set the trial date (Sept. 19-23) after speaking to prosecutors and Zen’s lawyers, The Tablet said, citing a report by the Hong Kong Free Press.

Zen was arrested on May 11, along with four other trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which helped protesters legally and financially. The others arrested included Cantopop singer and actor Denise Ho, ex-legislator Margaret Ng and academic Hui Po Keung.

During the next month’s trial, the focus of the arguments will be whether the humanitarian group fell under Hong Kong’s Societies Ordinance, which regulates registered and exempted associations, and also whether the accused held any positions of authority within it.

All five defendants pleaded not guilty, and if convicted of the improper registration, each defendant could incur a fine of about $1,300, the Tablet said.

Catholic News Agency added that, as of now, Zen hasn't been indicted under Hong Kong’s national security law, which would carry much more serious penalties, including life imprisonment.

Zen, a former bishop of Hong Kong, fled Shanghai for Hong Kong about seven decades ago after the communists took over China. The Vatican as well as many international organizations had condemned his arrest in May.

Hong Kong’s national security law imposed by China, which ended the city’s autonomy following the 1997 British handover, has four categories of crimes: succession, subversion of state power, local terrorist activities and collaborating with foreign or external foreign forces to endanger national security.

“The law also positions Beijing as over the Hong Kong judicial system in cases deemed related to national security,” the U.S.-based group China Aid reported earlier. “This means that the judges in these cases must be Beijing-approved. Hong Kong residents can now also be taken to China, where they will face a courtroom with allegiance to the government.”

In 1997, China had agreed to a “one country, two systems” arrangement to allow certain freedoms for Hong Kong when it received the city back from British control. Critics contend the security law undercuts the promised autonomy.

Zen has previously also drawn Beijing’s ire for his continued critique of the Vatican’s controversial 2018 deal with China regarding the appointment of bishops.

The agreement was first signed in 2018 and later renewed for another two months in October 2020. It permits the Chinese government to propose names for new bishops to the Vatican through its state-approved Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, with the pope having veto power on the decision. In turn, the Vatican recognizes the legitimacy of bishops previously appointed by the Chinese government and excommunicated by the church.

In late June, the Rev. Jonathan Aitken, an Anglican priest, former U.K. cabinet minister and member of Parliament, also warned about restrictions as Chinese President Xi Jinping marked the 25th anniversary of the city’s handover from Britain to China.

“The skies are darkening for religious freedom in Hong Kong,” Aitken said during a speech at the National Club in London on June 29, UCA News reported. “There are increasingly ominous signs” that religious freedom in Hong Kong is “next on the hit list by the destructive forces” of Xi’s regime.

China has often been accused of rights abuses against religious minorities, including Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners and Uyghur Muslims.

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