Cardinal Joseph Zen, barrister Margaret Ng, singer-activist Denise Ho and three others have pleaded not guilty to charges over an alleged failure to register a defunct protester relief fund as a society in Hong Kong between 2019 and 2021.
The six defendants linked to the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund appeared before Principal Magistrate Peter Law at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts on Tuesday morning, after being issued summons by the National Security Department of the police for allegedly breaching Section 5 (1) of the Societies Ordinance. They were said to have failed to apply for local society registration for the fund between July 16, 2019 and October 31, 2021. They all denied the charges.
The defendants included five former trustees of the fund, which provided financial aid and legal support to protesters during the 2019 unrest. They were Zen, Ng, Denise Ho, cultural studies scholar Hui Po-keung and jailed ex-legislator Cyd Ho. The sixth defendant was activist Sze Ching-wee, who was the fund’s secretary general before it ceased operations last October and had ties to pro-democracy party the League of Social Democrats (LSD).
Senior prosecutor Laura Ng said on Tuesday that the case involved 17 witnesses, 10 box files of documents and around eight hours of videotape containing footage of street booths erected during demonstrations.
Senior counsel Robert Pang, who represented all six defendants, told the court that the prosecution should “consider the proportionality” of the amount of evidence in the case, saying his clients would only face a fine of up to HK$10,000 each if convicted.
He went on to say that the case may not see a major debate over the facts, as the key legal dispute in the case would be whether the protester relief fund was a society.
“[That] is the crux of the case,” he said.
The principal magistrate ordered all parties to return to court on August 9 for a pre-trial review, while the official five-day trial is set to take place between September 19 and 23.
The five trustees of the defunct fund were arrested under the Beijing-imposed national security law two weeks ago on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces. Hui was reportedly the first one apprehended by the police when he was intercepted at the Hong Kong International Airport. They were all released on police bail without charge except for Ho, who is serving a prison term for an unauthorised assembly in October 2019.
Tuesday’s hearing saw dozens of residents line up for seats in the public gallery, including activists Avery Ng and Tsang Kin-shing of the LSD, who were both released from prison recently. Court attendees chanted “add oil” when the 90-year-old former Hong Kong bishop and others entered the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts. “It has been tough on you all,” some also shouted.
The phrase “add oil” is generally used to express encouragement and can be roughly translated as “keep it up.”
Consulate staff representing numerous countries such as the US, Britain, Australia, Germany, France, Austria and Ireland, as well as representatives from the European Union Office, also attended the hearing.