The high-profile trial against a 90-year-old retired cardinal and five other pro-democracy figures over a support fund for Hong Kong protesters has begun, with the defence arguing that materials seized under the Beijing-imposed national security law were “irrelevant” to the case.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, barrister and former lawmaker Margaret Ng, singer-activist Denise Ho, ex-lawmaker Cyd Ho, scholar Hui Po-keung, and Sze Ching-wee appeared in front of Principal Magistrate Ada Yim at West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts on Monday. The group stands accused of failing to register the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which provided financial support for those arrested or injured during the protests and unrest in 2019, as a society.

Cardinal Joseph Zen 612 Humanitarian Fund
Cardinal Joseph Zen at the West Kowloon Law Courts Building for the 612 Humanitarian Fund case on September 26, 2022. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The defence, including senior counsels Robert Pang, Ambrose Ho and Gladys Li, argued that some materials included in the prosecution’s case were “irrelevant.”

Li said that the materials in question were obtained by the police using a production order under the national security legislation granted by High Court Judge Alex Lee, and the matter was dealt with behind closed doors.

In September last year, the police served a court order demanding information from the group, on the grounds that it was suspected of violating the Beijing-imposed legislation.

The senior counsel said that it would be problematic if the court was asked by the prosecution to determine whether the defendants had violated the security law.

“That would be very very deeply unfair to the defendants,” Li said.

Margaret Ng 612 Humanitarian Fund
Margaret Ng at the West Kowloon Law Courts Building for the 612 Humanitarian Fund case on September 26, 2022. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The magistrate told the defence that there was no need to “read too much into the trial,” and that she would only consider the alleged offence under the Societies Ordinance.

Relevance of political aims

The defence also questioned the prosecution’s reference to the group’s “political aims.”

Ho said that there was no need for the prosecution to include sections relating to the fund’s “political aims” and “political ideology” in their case, to which the magistrate objected.

Yim said in response that every society had an aim, and that the court would not judge the fund on its politics.

“Why does politics always have to be a bad thing? It can be neutral too,” said Yim.

Pang, representing the cardinal, also questioned whether the offence was a “continuous offence,” and asked the prosecution to provide an exact time of when the alleged society had been established.

Denise Ho 612 Humanitarian Fund
Denise Ho at the West Kowloon Law Courts Building for the 612 Humanitarian Fund case on September 26, 2022. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

According to the Societies Ordinance, a society must apply for registration or an exemption from registration within one month of its establishment.

The 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund was launched in June 2019, and supported thousands of protesters by providing legal assistance, funds for psychological counselling, medical treatment and emergency monetary relief.

According to the prosecution, the fund’s bank account had over HK$200 million in deposits, and the balance as of October 6, 2021 was HK$7.4 million.

More than two-dozen video clips were played in court on Monday, showing press conferences announcing the launch and disbandment of the fund, as well as scenes of the protests where Zen, Ng, and Ho, and other political groups were asking for donations at street booths.

west kowloon court
Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The fund announced its decision to dissolve in August last year, after it learned that the company holding the fund, the Alliance for True Democracy Limited, would soon be defunct.

After the fund disbanded, Zen, Denise Ho, Cyd Ho, Ng, and Hui were arrested in May this year by the national security police. According to local media, the five were accused of conspiring to collude with foreign powers. No charges have been made.

After the prosecution, led by prosecutor Anthony Chau, read out the opening case and a summary of facts agreed by the defendants, Yim adjourned the case to Tuesday where witnesses will be summoned for cross-examination.

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.