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Defendants Cyd Ho and Cardinal Joseph Zen speak to the media after the sentencing at West Kowloon Court on Friday. Photo: Edmond So

Retired Hong Kong Catholic leader Joseph Zen among 6 fined up to HK$4,000 each over failure to register legal defence fund set up for protesters

  • Magistrate rules 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund was set up in swift and systematic manner, with clear political aims and intimate interaction with public
  • Ruling could be prelude to more legal troubles for six defendants, as national security police continue probe into their alleged collusion with foreign forces
Brian Wong

Retired Catholic leader Joseph Zen Ze-kiun and five other activists in Hong Kong have been fined up to HK$4,000 (US$512) each after being convicted of failing to register a legal defence fund for those involved in the 2019 anti-government protests.

The West Kowloon Court on Friday handed down the sentences in what were the first convictions documented for failing to get an organisation on the books.

The court ruled the now-defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund fell within the definition of a society under the Societies Ordinance and its members were required to register the group with police or ask for an exemption.

It also held that the registration regime did not impose excessive restrictions on the freedom of assembly and association protected by the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.

Defendants Cyd Ho, Joseph Zen, Margaret Ng, Denise Ho and Hui Po-keung greet the media after their trial at West Kowloon Court. Photo: Edmond So

Zen, 90, was the fund’s trustee alongside singer Denise Ho Wan-see, former Lingnan University academic Hui Po-keung and ex-opposition lawmakers Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee and Cyd Ho Sau-lan. The sixth defendant, Sze Ching-wee, was the fund’s secretary.

The six had denied a count of failing to apply for registration within a specific period, which in this case ran from June 15 to July 15, 2019. The fund remained unregistered when it ceased operation on October 31 last year.

Zen and the other four trustees were fined HK$4,000 each, while Sze received a HK$2,500 penalty for his lesser role in the fund.

But the legal troubles for the six individuals are not over, as officers from the police force’s National Security Department continue their investigation into the group’s alleged collusion with foreign forces to impose sanctions on Hong Kong. No charges have been laid yet, but their travel documents have been confiscated.

Hong Kong Catholic leader, activist Joseph Zen knew he might be arrested one day

The Societies Ordinance stipulates a local organisation must register with the societies officer, who is the police commissioner, or ask for an exemption within one month of its establishment. Otherwise, organisers could be fined HK$10,000 upon a first conviction.

Principal Magistrate Ada Yim Shun-yee on Friday said the fund, named after a major demonstration against the now-withdrawn extradition bill on June 12, 2019, was set up in a swift and systematic manner, with clear political aims and intimate interaction with the public.

“The undisputed fact is that the fund was not set up purely for charitable purposes … The 612 Fund clearly came into contact with matters of the public’s interest and zealously raised funds from the public to achieve their objectives,” she said.

Yim held that any organisation set up with a shared aim that either had interaction with the public or connection with a political group had to fulfil the registration requirement, adding the definition was not too broad given the exemptions provided by the statute.

Retired Hong Kong cardinal Joseph Zen, 5 others to stand trial over protest fund

The magistrate found the six were all indispensable members who shared “mutual rights and obligations” within the fund, with the five trustees being decision-makers and Sze the coordinator and financial officer.

She rejected the defence’s argument that the fund merely represented “a lump sum of cash” and highlighted its organised structure and detailed financial regulations.

Yim also dismissed the contention that the current system should be replaced by one featuring free registration and with no legal liabilities attached, as the latter would be insufficient in safeguarding national security and public order.

“Politics itself is a neutral term, but in light of the social events Hong Kong experienced in the past few years, political activities can cause social instability,” the magistrate said.

“I believe if a society is affiliated with a political organisation, be it a local group, one from Taiwan or a foreign country, its operation can pose a risk to the peace, public order and even national security.”

The government was also duty-bound to collect basic information from local organisations so the public could be notified when needed, she added.


Retired Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen fined for failing to register protester legal defence fund

Retired Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen fined for failing to register protester legal defence fund

Ng, the fund’s de facto spokeswoman, said Friday’s verdict could have a long-term impact on what Hongkongers were allowed to do in the future.

“This case is not just about the six of us,” she said. “But it is the first time ever that anyone had to face a charge under the Societies Ordinance for failing to register [a society with authorities].”

“So the consequence, the effect on other people, on the many, many citizens who are associated together to do one thing or another, and what would happen to them, it’s very important.”

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Zen reiterated he was very supportive of offering humanitarian aid to those in need, and urged the public not to associate his sentence with the prospect of curbs on religious freedoms, explaining there were currently no signs Hongkongers’ liberty to practice their faith had been undermined.

“I understand that many people overseas are saying Cardinal Zen is being bullied. It’s irrelevant. I’m part of the fund,” Zen said. “We in Hong Kong have not seen any evidence of our religious freedom being damaged as of yet.”

Cardinal Joseph Zen arrested by Hong Kong’s national security police

Prosecutors in September said the fund accepted nearly 100,000 donations worth a total of HK$270 million between June 2019 and October 2021, with some of the money used to subsidise anti-government protest organisers, international lobbyists and foreign organisations hostile to Beijing.

Those receiving subsidies from the fund included the now-dissolved Civil Human Rights Front, the Taiwan-based Judicial Reform Foundation and New Hong Kong Cultural Club, a pro-independence group founded by Hongkongers in Canada.

The fund’s dealings with overseas bodies were made known after police invoked the national security law’s implementation rules to compel the five to hand over information, including the personal details of donors and recipients.