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Hong Kong pro-democracy activists on trial

Ninety-year-old Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen is among the many facing protest-related charges


Cardinal Joseph Zen arrives at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ courts in Hong Kong on Monday. Associated Press/Photo by Oiyan Chan

Hong Kong pro-democracy activists on trial

Wearing his clerical collar and a cross necklace, retired cardinal Joseph Zen walked slowly with the help of a cane into Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Law Courts Building on Monday. The outspoken critic of the Chinese government is facing trial for his involvement with the now-defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund.

Authorities charged Zen, along with four other fund trustees and the fund’s secretary, with failing to properly register the fund as a society. The fund provided legal, financial, and medical aid to pro-democracy demonstrators arrested during the city’s 2019 protests. If convicted, they face a fine of up to $1,300. They have all pleaded not guilty.

Zen and his co-defendants—former lawmaker Cyd Ho, barrister Margaret Ng, pop singer Denise Ho, academic Hui Po-keung, and the fund’s secretary, Sze Ching-wee—are among the many Hong Kongers facing trial for their activism. Authorities have arrested more than 10,250 people in connection with the 2019 demonstrations. Political prisoners number over 1,000, the D.C.-based Hong Kong Democracy Council reports

Zen has regularly visited inmates. Last Christmas he arranged for the baptism of a former legislator detained in the largest ongoing national security law case. Authorities charged 47 politicians and activists with alleged subversion because they participated in an unofficial primary election in July 2020. Most of them, including Christian legal scholar Benny Tai, have already been detained for over a year before their non-jury trial. 

Hong Kong’s common law legal system has used trial by jury for 177 years, but the national security law Beijing imposed in June 2020 to curb dissent allows cases to be heard by dedicated national security judges.

“Denial of a jury trial is among several security law provisions that deprive defendants of their fair trial rights,” said Human Rights Watch in a statement about the case. Charged under a law that punishes violators with up to life imprisonment, some defendants like Tai and Joshua Wong plan to plead guilty, which would likely reduce their sentences.

Protest-related charges have also extended to others like Pastor Garry Pang, who is facing trial under a colonial-era sedition law. Hong Kong is prosecuting Pang for uttering “seditious words,” clapping during another activist’s court case, and running a protest-related YouTube channel. He has been repeatedly denied bail and could face up to two years in prison. 

Five speech therapists received sentences of 19 months on Sept. 10 for publishing children’s books depicting sheep and wolves that the regime has deemed seditious. More recently, a man who played the banned protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong” on his harmonica as part of his tribute to the late Queen Elizabeth II is also facing sedition charges. 

Zen’s trial will continue on Oct. 26. He and the other fund trustees were arrested on May 12 for alleged foreign collusion, although authorities have not charged them with the national security crime. 

The Roman Catholic Church and Pope Francis have remained largely silent on Zen’s prosecution and do not appear to be assisting with his defense, but individual church leaders have spoken up. Calling the Hong Kong cardinal a “much-feared figure by the government,” German Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller said, “Zen is a symbol, and he was arrested on a pretext. He did nothing.”

Leading a prayer service dedicated to mainland Chinese churches on May 26, Zen said, “Martyrdom is a very normal thing in the church.” Earlier that day he had attended his own court session. “We may not need to be martyrs,” he said, “but we still need to steel ourselves and suffer a bit to be true to our faith.” 

World Radar

INDIA: Christian leaders in India’s Karnataka state have expressed concern over an anti-conversion law passed this month by state lawmakers. The Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill includes a five-year sentence for “illegal” conversions. The sentence extends to 10 years when it involves a minor. At least five states already enforce such laws across India. Hindu nationalist attacks on Christians have increased under the leadership of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Sajan K. George, president of the Bangalore-based Global Council of Indian Christians, told Crux, an independent news organization covering the Roman Catholic Church, the legislation has “draconian clauses to terrorize Christians in Karnataka.” 

SOUTH SUDAN: Residents at a United Nations–run camp report sexual abuse allegations are increasing against international aid staffers, according to an investigation by The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera. One teenager said she was 15 when a local World Vision worker raped and got her pregnant at the camp in Malakal in 2019. Accusations extend to other staffers from the World Food Program, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and the International Organization for Migration. Residents also complained about the lack of action against perpetrators. An MSF staffer caught trying to rape a 13-year-old girl returned to work after a month-long suspension, the report added. 

SOMALIA: Interior Minister Ahmed Moalim this week confirmed the country is using Turkish drones in its ongoing offensive against al-Shabaab insurgents. Moalim said Turkey joined the offensive in central and southern Somalia with its Bayraktar TB2 drone. It makes Somalia the latest African nation to purchase Turkish drones. Togo, Niger, and Libya have deployed the weapons to fight jihadists and rebels. Drones provide a cheaper alternative to more expensive aerial weapons that require more training. But they still pose risks: Ethiopia deployed a Turkish drone in a January airstrike that killed at least 59 people in the restive Tigray region. 

Meanwhile, new satellite imagery taken by Maxar Technologies shows a military buildup in Eritrea near the border with Tigray. The image backs up reports from Tigray that accuse Eritrea of launching a new full-scale offensive with Ethiopian forces.   

FLOODING: Persistent rainfall this rainy season has triggered Nigeria’s worst flooding in decades, according to emergency officials. More than 300 people have died and at least 100,000 others are displaced. The deluge swept up more than 500 corpses in Niger state, where residents reported seeing them floating on the river. In the Philippines, the strongest typhoon this year killed at least six people, swept away homes, and knocked out power. Meanwhile, Pakistan has continued to ask for aid after the record flooding that killed more than 1,000 people and displaced 33 million others.

NETHERLANDS: Anne van der Bijl, who founded the international Open Doors ministry, died Tuesday. He was 94. “Brother Andrew” became a Christian after reading the Bible while recovering from a battlefield injury in Indonesia. He went on to study theology before starting to smuggle Bibles to Christians in Communist-led Eastern Europe in the 1950s. That work earned him the nickname “God’s Smuggler” and grew into what Open Doors now does today—supporting persecuted Christians across more than 60 countries. In June 1981, his crew successfully floated 1 million Bibles in a custom-built barge to the Chinese coastline. “We just did it in obedience to God’s commission,” he later said. —Onize Ohikere

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