The criminal trial of Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong has been delayed after the judge presiding over the case tested positive for COVID-19, Hong Kong media reported.
Cardinal Zen, 90, was to have stood trial beginning Monday in connection to his role as a trustee of a pro-democracy legal fund, which he and other trustees are accused of failing to register civilly.
Cardinal Zen is the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, an outspoken advocate for religious freedom and democracy, and a sharp critic of the Vatican’s 2018 agreement with Beijing on the appointment of bishops.
Local media reported over the weekend that the trial — originally set to begin Sept. 19 and expected to conclude with a verdict on Sept. 23 — has been delayed by at least two days because Permanent Magistrate Ada Yim Shun-yee, the judge overseeing the case, contracted COVID-19. Cardinal Zen has been free on bail since early May.
In addition to Cardinal Zen, lawyer Margaret Ng, singer-activist Denise Ho, cultural studies scholar Hui Po-keung, activist Sze Ching-wee, and ex-legislator Cyd Ho are accused of failing to apply for local society registration for the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund between July 16, 2019, and Oct. 31, 2021.
All the defendants have pleaded not guilty; Cyd Ho is already jailed for a different charge. The fund helped pro-democracy protesters pay their legal fees until it dissolved itself in October 2021. The defendants’ lawyers argue that they had the right to associate under Hong Kong’s Basic Law — the legal framework created when Great Britain handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997.
It appears the defendants have not — as of yet — been indicted under Hong Kong’s national security law, which broadly criminalizes “sedition” and “collusion with foreign forces,” and which would have carried with it much more serious penalties.
The trial will be conducted in Chinese with the closing arguments in English, HKFP reported in August. Without the national security law indictment, the defendants could face only a fine of up to $1,750, Asia News reported.
Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China with its own government, and its citizens have historically enjoyed greater freedom of religion than on the Chinese mainland, where religious believers of all stripes are routinely surveilled and restricted by the communist government. But in recent years, Beijing has sought to tighten control over religious practices in Hong Kong under the guise of protecting national security.
Cardinal Zen, who led the Hong Kong diocese from 2002–2009, is one of several high-profile Catholics who have run afoul of the Chinese government in recent years for their support of pro-democracy activities. Catholic pro-democracy figures such as media tycoon Jimmy Lai and lawyer Martin Lee have garnered media attention for their arrests at the hands of Chinese authorities.
Amid Cardinal Zen’s trial, the Holy See continues to work toward the renewal of the China-Vatican agreement for the appointment of bishops, first agreed to in 2018. That deal was meant to unify the country’s 12 million Catholics, divided between the underground Church and the Communist-administered Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, and clear a path for the appointment of bishops for Chinese dioceses. Despite the deal, persecution of the underground Church has continued and, according to some, intensified.
The Vatican Secretariat of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin recently hinted to CNA that he has worked toward changing some terms of the agreement, though it is unknown which terms of the agreement could be tweaked, given the deal is secret and its terms remain unknown to the public.