Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen along with five activists have appeared in court after their trial resumed to hear closing arguments over their alleged failure to register a now-defunct humanitarian fund for pro-democracy protesters.
Cardinal Zen, 90, former bishop of Hong Kong and one of Asia’s most senior Catholic clerics, attended the hearing at the West Kowloon Magistrate’s Court on Oct. 26, reported Hong Kong Free Press.
His co-defendants are Barrister Margaret Ng, singer-activist Denise Ho, former legislator Cyd Ho, scholar Hui Po-Keung, and Sze Ching-wee.
The six former trustees face the charge of not properly registering the “612 Humanitarian Relief Fund” under the Societies Ordinance, a British colonial-era law from 1911.
Rejecting the defence’s claim that the registration requirement contravened freedom of association protected under the Basic Law the prosecution countered with the need for greater control of the fund and its activities.
“Many societies organise public fundraising and accept donations. The substantial donations received by the 612 Fund should really be regulated,” said lead prosecutor Anthony Chau.
He added that the registration requirement achieved a “reasonable balance” between the protection of social interests and the encroachment of personal rights.
The prosecution also stated that the requirement to register the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund as a local society “did not infringe upon freedom of association.”
“If the society was not exempted, then it would be covered by the ordinance,” he said.
Chau also pointed out that the trustees had sufficient time to prepare the necessary documents and register their society.
He said that the society had “sufficient time to prepare the information needed for the registration as the application deadline was one month after it was founded.”
He also added that the maximum penalty for first-time offenders was a fine of HK$10,000 (US$ 1,274) only, which was “not harsh.”
The defence counsel had presented various other national and international cases of similar nature which were rejected by the prosecution.
Chau said that they were “not comparable” to the present case.
He added that the case background and nature, the ordinances involved, the legislative intent of the ordinances and the points of contention were all “starkly different.”
He also urged the court to “adopt a broad definition and interpret the law with the flexibility to reflect the legislative intent of maintaining law and order,” during his closing argument.
The trial was adjourned until Oct 31 for the court to hear closing arguments from the defence.
Cardinal Zen and the other five were initially accused of “colluding with foreign forces” but are not yet charged with a national security offence, which can carry a sentence of life in prison.
Chau also argued that the funds set up by Cardinal Zen and the co-defendants did not belong to any of the 16 groups listed in a schedule to which the Societies Ordinance did not apply.
The groups according to the ordinance are segregated based on language, sports, cultural activities, industrial professions, trades, and religious or charitable societies.
The prosecution estimated that the fund had more than HK$450 million in total deposits and had spent more than HK$446 million.
Rights activists say the case against Cardinal Zen and his co-defendants is an example of Beijing’s strategy to suppress dissent through the sweeping National Security Law and the provisions of other colonial legislations.
They are among hundreds of pro-democracy supporters and politicians either jailed or facing prosecution in the courts as China tightens its grip on the former British colony that used to enjoy a higher degree of autonomy and basic freedoms including independent judiciary and legislature under “one country two systems” framework.
Earlier on Oct 25, Jimmy Lai, a Catholic media tycoon and the founder of now-defunct pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper and chief of its parent company, Next Digital, was found guilty of fraud in court.
– Raju Hasmukh with files from UCAN News