Cardinal Joseph Zen, barrister Margaret Ng, singer-activist Denise Ho, and scholar Hui Po-keung have been released on bail following their arrests by national security police.

They stood accused of conspiring to collude with foreign powers in relation to 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which aided protesters during the 2019 anti-extradition unrest, local media reported.

Cardinal Joseph Zen leaving Chai Wan Police Station on May 11, 2022 at around 11 p.m.. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Zen was released on bail from Chai Wan Police Station at around 11 p.m. on Wednesday. He did not speak. Using a walking stick and holding a thermal bottle in his hand, Zen then entered a private car parked outside the police station. The 90-year-old was accompanied by five people when he left.

The Vatican said in a statement on Wednesday that were “following the development of the situation with extreme attention,” the Catholic News Agency reported.

Just after midnight on Thursday, Ng was released from the Wan Chai police headquarters. “I’m a bit tired, but I’m still okay,” she told HKFP.

Asked by another reporter about whether she had to hand in her travel documents, Ng said, “maybe [I] should not speak in detail.”

Barrister Margaret Ng leaves the Wan Chai police headquarters. Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

The barrister thanked reporters for waiting for her. She clasped her hands together in a prayer gesture before getting on a private car and leaving.

National security police confirmed late on Wednesday that they had arrested four people – two males and two females – aged between 45 and 90, for alleged conspiracy to collude with foreign powers.

Police said the arrestees were trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which supported thousands of protesters during the 2019 unrest by providing legal assistance, funds for psychological counselling and medical treatment and emergency relief.

Scholar Hui Po-keung leaving Kwai Chung Police Station at around midnight on May 12, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

The fund ceased operating last year after police said they were conducting a national security probe into it.

Ho was also arrested on Wednesday, while Hui was apprehended at the airport on Tuesday. He was reportedly on his way to Europe to take up an academic post.

Ho was released from Western Police Station, InMedia reported, and Hui from Kwai Chung Police Station. Neither spoke to reporters as they left.

Some of Hui’s students were waiting outside for him, and one of them tapped on his shoulder to ask if he was okay.

A ‘shocking escalation’ of repression

Rights groups have denounced the arrests.

“The targeting of these four activists, among them a 90-year-old cardinal, for enabling legal and humanitarian support for protesters lays bare the Hong Kong government’s callous disregard for the basic rights of its citizens,” Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director Erwin van der Borght said on Thursday.

“The trustees’ so-called crime of ‘collusion with foreign forces’ once again highlights how the vagueness of Hong Kong’s national security law can be weaponised to make politically motivated, or simply malicious, arrests,” he added.

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure.

Maya Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, called the arrests a “shocking new low.”

“The arrests, which comes days after the Chinese government’s anointment of former security chief John Lee as the city’s chief executive, is an ominous sign that its crackdown on Hong Kong is only going to escalate,” she said.

Additional reporting: Almond Li, Kelly Ho, Lea Mok, Candice Chau

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Hillary Leung

Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.