A 90-year-old Hong Kong cardinal will stand trial on Monday along with four democracy advocates for their role in running a fund to help protect those arrested in anti-government protests.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, one of Asia’s highest-ranking Catholic clerics, was originally detained earlier this year under a national security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong to crack down on dissent.
His arrest for “collusion with foreign forces” sent shockwaves through the city’s Catholic community and sparked renewed criticism of the Vatican’s warm relationship with Beijing, including among fellow senior clerics.
Police have yet to charge Jane with a national security offence, which could carry life in prison.
Instead, he and his co-defendants, including activist and singer Dennis Ho and veteran human rights barrister Margaret Ng, are being tried for the less serious offense of failing to properly register their defense fund as a society.
If convicted they face fines of up to HK$10,000 ($1,274) but no jail time. All have pleaded not guilty.
The Vatican has remained silent on Jane’s arrest, saying it is concerned and is “following the development of the situation very closely”.
Pope Francis declined to comment on Jane’s arrest earlier this month, but said he was determined to continue a dialogue with Beijing.
Jane’s prosecution comes at a sensitive time for the Vatican, which is working to renew its controversial agreement with Beijing later this year on the appointment of bishops to China.
Jane was highly critical, calling the deal a “sell-out” of China’s Catholic underground.
One of the most senior Catholic clerics to criticize the Vatican’s response to Jane’s arrest is German Cardinal Gerhard Müller. “We have abandoned him,” Muller told Italian newspaper Il Messagerro earlier this month, adding that he was disappointed that a recent organizer – a gathering of cardinals in Rome – did not speak out in support of Jane.
“I do not want the collusion’s silence on Bishop Jane to reveal the fact that this cardinal will be sacrificed on the altar of reason, to preserve and implement diplomatic agreements with Beijing,” he said. “I foresee this risk and I feel the pain.”
Jane’s group served as trustee of a now-defunct fund that helped pay legal and medical expenses for people arrested during massive and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests three years ago.
China has responded to those protests with a massive crackdown on dissent.
Most of the city’s prominent democracy activists are now in prison or have fled abroad, while dozens of civil society groups have shut down.
Some groups have been prosecuted for funding and registration irregularities, although several operated without incident for years, including the coalition that organized the city’s annual Tiananmen Crackdown Vigil.
The Hong Kong government says prosecutors are only following the law.
Critics claim that the “legal system” has been introduced to silence critical groups and prevent them from engaging in costly legal battles.
Jane’s 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund has been accused of not properly registering under the Societies Ordinance, a colonial-era law of 1911.
The fund was disbanded after the National Security Police demanded it hand over operational details, including information on its donors and beneficiaries.
The investigation began when one of the defendants, cultural studies scholar Hui Po-keung, was detained at Hong Kong’s airport on 20 May 10 as he attempted to take up an academic post in Europe.