Cardinal Joseph Zen, an outspoken advocate for Catholics in mainland China and critic of the government in Beijing, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he violated a national security law by helping raise funds for pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
Zen, 90, is bishop emeritus of Hong Kong. Affectionately known as “Grandpa Cardinal,” he was among four people arrested in Hong Kong on May 11 for their alleged role in helping pro-democracy protestors in financial need and colluding with foreign forces by asking that sanctions be imposed on the former British colony.
Zen and the others were released on bail shortly after taken into custody for violation of a national security law. Imposed by Beijing in June 2020 and widely viewed to be draconian, the law has been used to arrest scores of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
The cardinal and the others arrested are associated with the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund aimed at providing medical, legal and emergency financial aid to pro-democracy protesters who were wounded, arrested or jailed during anti-government protests in 2019.
On May 24, Zen, along with four trustees and the secretary of the fund, pleaded not guilty in court to the charge that they unlawfully failed to declare the fund. They also stand to be charged with “colluding with foreign forces,” but this has not so far been filed against them. The trial of the six individuals is set to begin September 19.
The humanitarian relief fund was forced to dissolve in October 2021 following an investigation of its alleged violation of the national security law. The cardinal and others arrested potentially face life in prison if found guilty, and their arrests have prompted an outcry from humanitarian organizations.
“Arresting a 90-year-old cardinal for his peaceful activities has to be a shocking new low for Hong Kong, illustrating the city’s free fall in human rights in the past two years,” said Human Rights Watch.
The arrests “signal beyond a doubt that Beijing intends to intensify its crackdown on basic rights and freedoms in Hong Kong,” said Benedict Rogers, chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, a Britain-based human rights group. “We urge the international community to shine a light on this brutal crackdown and call for the immediate release of these activists.”
The White House also condemned the arrests. Deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a recent news briefing, “We call on P.R.C. [Peoples Republic of China] and Hong Kong authorities to cease targeting Hong Kong’s advocates and to immediately release [those] who have been unjustly detained and charged.”
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