One of Asia’s most prominent Catholic clerics, retired prelate Joseph Zen was among a group of pro-democracy movement figures arrested on Wednesday for “colluding with foreign forces”.
Also arrested were singer Denise Ho, LGBTQ rights activist, lawyer Margaret Ng and academic Hui Po-keung, the latter at the airport as he prepared to leave for Europe where he had obtained a university post.
Cyd Ho, a pro-democracy activist currently in detention after a previous conviction for his participation in protests, was served with his arrest on Thursday.
“The persons concerned are suspected of conspiring to collude with foreign countries or foreign forces in order to endanger national security – an act of a serious nature,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Representative Office said in a statement. Hong Kong.
The religious affiliation of those arrested is “completely irrelevant” and “no one is (…) above the law”, for its part affirmed the Hong Kong executive.
All five were arrested for having participated in the management of a now dissolved fund, the “612 Humanitarian Relief Fund”, intended to finance the defense of activists arrested during the huge pro-democracy demonstrations which shook the former British colony in 2019.
Beijing has put an end to this vast protest movement and transformed Hong Kong, long considered a bastion of freedom of expression, into a territory under the growing influence of authoritarian China.
Mr. Zen and the three other personalities arrested on Wednesday and released on bail in the evening, join more than 180 Hong Kongers arrested in the name of the drastic national security law imposed by Beijing in June 2020.
– “Shocking escalation” –
Those charged are usually not released on bail and can be sentenced to life in prison.
Several Western countries have accused China of wanting to put an end to the freedoms it had promised to respect in the territory after the return of the former British colony in 1997.
The United States called on Beijing “to stop targeting those who defend Hong Kong”. The British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, James Cleverly, described as “unacceptable” these arrests Thursday in Parliament.
Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly called the wave of arrests “deeply disturbing”. The head of diplomacy of the European Union Josep Borrell said his “great concern”.
The rights organization Human Rights Watch denounced a “shocking new decline for Hong Kong”.
“Even considering that the repression has worsened recently in Hong Kong, these arrests constitute a terrible and shocking escalation,” added Amnesty International.
Cardinal Zen had left Shanghai after the Communists came to power in China in 1949 and had become the bishop of Hong Kong, where some 400,000 Catholics live.
He had notably criticized the compromise reached between the Holy See and Beijing concerning the appointment of bishops in China, and has long been known as a tireless defender of the pro-democracy movement.
In recent years, the Catholic hierarchy in Hong Kong, including the successors of Zen, has been much less vocal about Beijing.
– “Sword of Damocles” –
His arrest sent shockwaves through Hong Kong’s Catholic community which, unlike on the mainland, is free to practice its faith without state control.
“Cardinal Zen’s arrest is a blow to the whole Church in Hong Kong, China and the world,” Franco Mella, 73, an Italian missionary based in Hong Kong, told AFP.
“It has become apparent that there is a sword of Damocles over Zen and other members of the Church.”
Laura, a laywoman visiting a church on Thursday, said worshipers feared Hong Kong would become like China in matters of religion.
Ta Kung Pao, a nationalist newspaper under Beijing’s Hong Kong Liaison Office, published an article on Thursday detailing “six crimes” allegedly committed by the group and its defense fund.
He also reported a donation of 1.3 million Hong Kong dollars (158,000 euros) from the Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper forced to close last year after the freezing of its assets in the name of security law.
Most of the alleged facts mentioned by Ta Kung Pao occurred before the enactment of this law which is not supposed to be retroactive.
The fund was dismantled last year after national security police demanded access to information about its donors and beneficiaries.