Hong Kong police have arrested 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, along with four other pro-democracy figures allegedly linked to a fund supporting Hong Kong protesters, according to local media reports. The arrests were made under a draconian Beijing-imposed national security law used to quash dissent in the city.
The Hong Kong National Security Police Unit arrested Zen, who was the former head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong, as well as singer and activist Denise Ho, academic Hui Po-keung, attorney Margaret Ng, and former lawmaker Cyd Ho on May 11 for allegedly contravening the “collusion with foreign forces” provision of the National Security Law.
Those arrested were trustees of the now-dissolved “612 Humanitarian Relief Fund,” which provided medical and humanitarian assistance to pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong in 2019. The fund dissolved in August 2021.
Zen has long been an advocate of religious and civic freedoms in Hong Kong and mainland China and has spoken out against the communist regime’s growing authoritarianism, including a Beijing-imposed national security law and the persecution of Roman Catholics in China.
Hui was arrested at the airport on May 10, according to media reports, while Cyd Ho was already in prison for a separate case.
“We condemn the arrests of these activists, whose supposed crime was funding legal aid for pro-democracy protesters back in 2019,” said Benedict Rogers, CEO of advocacy group Hong Kong Watch. “Today’s arrests signal beyond a doubt that Beijing intends to intensify its crackdown on basic rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.
“We urge the international community to shine a light on this brutal crackdown and call for the immediate release of these activists.”
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) imposed the national security law in Hong Kong in June 2020 and has been using it to clamp down on dissenting voices by punishing anyone deemed by Beijing to have engaged in acts of terrorism, subversion, collusion with foreign forces, and secession. Those offenses carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. More than 100 pro-democracy figures have been arrested or charged under the law.
The law has drawn international condemnation, with Western governments saying it has been used to silence dissent, curtail free speech, and erode Hong Kong’s relative autonomy.
The arrest comes days after Hong Kong’s new leader John Lee, a former security chief, came to power. Lee was the sole candidate in the 2022 Hong Kong Chief Executive election, running unopposed in the Beijing-controlled selection process.
U.S. Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell said the United States was concerned about the “clampdown” in Hong Kong, including in religious circles and academia.
“All I can tell you is that I think we’re increasingly troubled by steps in Hong Kong to pressure and eliminate civil society,” Campbell told an online event in Washington when asked about the arrests.
Hui, an associate cultural studies professor at Lingnan University, had once taught exiled democracy activist Nathan Law.
“If you want to punish someone, you can always find an excuse,” Law wrote on his Facebook page in response to Hui’s arrest.
Reuters contributed to this article.