Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun appeared in court in Hong Kong Monday at the start of his criminal trial.
The 90-year-old cardinal was originally due to face trial on Sept. 19, but the hearing was postponed after a judge in the case tested positive for COVID-19.
Zen arrived at West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts Sept. 26 wearing a white face covering and gray clerical shirt with a pectoral cross, and walking with the help of a brown cane.
The Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong was arrested in May in connection with his role as a trustee of the 612 Humanitarian Fund, which provided financial and legal aid to people arrested during mass demonstrations in 2019.
He was originally held on national security grounds, including alleged collusion with foreign agents. But he now faces the lesser charge of allegedly failing to register the fund through the proper channels. If convicted, he will have to pay a fine of up to 10,000 Hong Kong dollars ($1,273) but will be spared jail.
The Associated Press reported that the trial would focus on whether the fund was obliged to register with the authorities and when it was established. Under Hong Kong’s Societies Ordinance, organizations must register within a month of their creation or seek an exemption from registration.
According to Reuters, prosecutor Anthony Chau claimed on the trial’s opening day that the fund was used for “political activities.”
“The goal of the fund was to raise the political demands of the anti-extradition bill protests to the international level,” he said.
Chau is the leading Hong Kong prosecutor in cases involving the controversial National Security Law, brought into force in 2020.
During the court hearing on Monday, lawyers for Zen and the other defendants argued that much of the prosecution’s evidence came from material seized under special powers granted by the National Security Law to investigate suspected national security offenses, and not available in cases related to the charges facing the cardinal and others.
Prosecutors used the National Security Law to compel the fund to hand over information on all of its donors and those to whom it had given grants.
On Monday, they argued that the 612 Fund raised more than $34 million from more than 100,000 donations, and that some half a million dollars was spent on what they called “political events,” though the chief judge in the case, Ada Yim, warned the prosecution that “political” was not a synonymous term for criminal activity under the law relevant to the trial.
Zen is facing trial alongside other trustees of the now closed fund, including the barrister Margaret Ng, singer Denise Ho, former lawmaker Cyd Ho, cultural studies scholar Hui Po-keung, and activist Sze Ching-wee. All the defendants pleaded not guilty to the offenses in May.
Zen is one of the most prominent pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong, a former British colony with a population of 7.5 million people that became a special administrative region of China in 1997.
The Chinese government promised to maintain the city’s existing governmental and economic structures for 50 years after British rule under the “one country, two systems” principle, upholding Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which guaranteed the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents.
In 2019, the Hong Kong government attempted to pass legislation that would have allowed political detainees to be deported to mainland China to face trial. Months of mass demonstrations and protests led to a fierce police crackdown.
Although the extradition bill was withdrawn, Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong in June 2020, curtailing civil liberties.
The Vatican and China are expected to announce in the coming weeks that they have extended their “provisional agreement,” first signed in 2018 and renewed in 2020.
Zen is an outspoken critic of the deal, which grants the Chinese Communist Party a joint role in the appointment of bishops to mainland dioceses.
Some commentators believe that the Chinese authorities are using the Zen trial as a bargaining chip ahead of the deal’s renewal for a further two years.