Ninety-year-old Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen and five other pro-democracy figures were found guilty on Friday over failing to register a now-defunct protester relief fund as a society and fined up to HK$4,000 each.

Zen, barrister Margaret Ng, ex-lawmaker Cyd Ho, scholar Hui Po-keung, singer-activist Denise Ho, and Sze Ching-wee appeared in front of Principal Magistrate Ada Yip at West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts on Friday. The former five were trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, while Sze was the fund’s secretary.

(From left) Cyd Ho, Cardinal Joseph Zen, Margaret Ng, Denise Ho and Hui Po-keung, the former trustees of 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, at West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court on November 25, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Founded in June 2019 at the start of the mass extradition bill protests, it provided financial support for those arrested or injured before shutting down last August, after it learned the company holding its assets, the Alliance for True Democracy Limited, would soon do likewise.

After considering the roles of all six defendants, the size of the organisation, and the time it operated without registration, Yim sentenced the five trustees to a HK$4,000 fine and ordered Sze to pay HK$2,500.

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

Although it was disputed by the defence, Yim ruled that the Societies Ordinance applied to the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund.

Cardinal Joseph Zen in August 2022. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The magistrate said the trust did not fall into any of the exempted categories listed in the legislation, as it was not a trust of public nature solely established for charity purposes.

Rather, Yim said that the agreement signed by the five trustees carried “political aims.” In addition, she ruled that the members of the fund shared mutual rights and obligations, and that the group had engaged the public and had connections with political groups.

“A trust does not emerge without reasons, as it must involve planning beforehand. So did the 612 fund,” Yim said.

Yim also ruled that all six defendants could be regarded as “office-bearers” of the fund, thus were liable for not registering the trust as a society.

Margaret Ng (centre) at the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on November 25, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The magistrate said they were responsible for the fund’s administrative and financial management and knew more about the fund’s operation than other ordinary members.

Although the lawyer representing Sze told the court that the defendant was only an “independent contractor” employed by the five trustees, Yim ruled that he was practically a “coordinator” of the fund and had participated in decision-making meetings.

Yim also said Sze shared the same obligation as the five trustees to make use of the fund according to its purpose and ensure smooth administration.

As a result, Yim said she was not convinced that Sze was only a contractor and the “only plausible inference” was that he was also an office-bearer in the organisation and could be considered as “secretary” or “treasurer.”

Denise Ho at the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on November 25, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The defence also challenged the constitutionality of the Societies Ordinance, saying that it “disproportionally” restricted people’s right to assembly.

However, Yim said the right to assembly was not absolute and could be restricted for reasons such as national security, public safety, social order, and protection of others’ rights or freedoms.

With regard to the legislation itself, Yim ruled that the information required for registration was neither complex nor excessive, while the process itself was simple.

She added that the public was entitled to know the basic information of societies and it was the government’s duty to ensure accurate data was made available.

“The court, therefore, came to view that the purposes of the registration system were legitimate, and that the relevant requirements were reasonable,” Yim added.

(From left) Cardinal Joseph Zen, Hui Po-keung, Margaret Ng and Denise Ho, the former trustees of 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, at West Kowloon Law Courts Building on November 25, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Meeting with the press after the hearing, Margaret Ng said the case was “not just about the six of us,” as it was the first time faced such a charge under the Societies Ordinance.

She said the consequences of the case were very important to those in the city. “It is also very important about the freedom of assembly in Hong Kong under the Societies Ordinance,” Ng added.

She said they would take time and seek counsel on the judgement before deciding on their next step.

Meanwhile, Cardinal Zen told reporters not to place too much emphasis on his religious identity. “I am a Hong Kong citizen who supported this humanitarian work,” he said.

(From left) Cardinal Joseph Zen, Margaret Ng and Denise Ho, the former trustees of 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, at West Kowloon Law Courts Building on November 25, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Zen, Denise Ho, Cyd Ho, Ng, and Hui were arrested in May this year by national security police for another offence. They were reportedly accused of conspiring to collude with foreign powers, an offence under the Beijing-imposed national security law. The five were released on bail and no charges have so far been laid.

Sze was arrested in November over the same charge. He was also granted bail.

The Catholic Diocese told HKFP it had no comment.

Additional reporting: Candice Chau

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Peter Lee

Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.