ROME—A Hong Kong court has convicted 90-year-old retired Cardinal Joseph Zen as part of its continued crackdown on dissent.
Zen was arrested under a new national security law last May as he tried to board a flight to Germany along with several other prominent activists, including pop singer Denise Ho, lawyer Margaret Ng and scholar Hui Po-keung.
The cardinal was found guilty Friday of failing to register a fund supporting pro-democracy protesters. He has been fined around $500 but spared jail time.
The case has drawn global attention because it is the first time evidence was gathered using China’s controversial national security law that was created to clamp down on pro-democracy dissent.
The pro-democracy fund, which has since been dissolved, was used to pay for legal assistance for the thousands of demonstrators who were arrested in weekly marches in 2019. The violent demos dominated headlines before the COVID pandemic put an end to the public gatherings. Prosecutors said the fund raised around $34.4 million through 100,000 deposits which they argued were tied to foreign entities and, as such, illegal.
The pro-democracy protesters were marching against China imposing the national security law, which they argued 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 in vestments with a cross around his neck, and spoke to reporters outside the court. “I saw many people overseas are concerned about a cardinal being arrested,” he said, according to CNN. “It is not related to religious freedom. I am part of the fund. Hong Kong has not seen damage to its religious freedom.”
Zen has been a vocal opponent of an agreement the Holy See struck with China over who decides which bishops are appointed. The practice of Catholicism is closely monitored in mainland China with a large segment of Catholics secretly worshiping in underground churches not associated with the government-mandated Catholic churches.
When Zen was arrested, the Vatican issued a statement of concern for his safety. “The Holy See has learned the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest with concern and is following the development of the situation very closely,” the press office said in a statement. The Vatican did not immediately release a statement on the convictions.