By Shirley Lau
Hong Kong, May 12 (EFE).- The arrest in Hong Kong and subsequent release on bail of Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen, 90, on charges related to the 2019 pro-democracy protests has unleashed a barrage of international criticism against the latest demonstration of the clampdown on freedoms in the former British territory.
Zen, the Catholic bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, was released on bail Wednesday night, a few hours after he was arrested by police for alleged foreign collusion under a sweeping Beijing-imposed national security law. It is the first arrest of a Catholic cardinal on Chinese soil since the end of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s.
Also arrested on the same ground and then released on the same condition last night were Canadian-Hong Kong pop musician Denise Ho, renowned barrister Margaret Ng and academic Hui Po-keung, as well as former lawmaker Cyd Ho, who was arrested Thursday. She is currently in jail serving two sentences for protest-related charges.
All five were trustees of the now-dissolved 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which has come under increasingly close scrutiny by the city’s national security police force.
The fund, which had raised $30 million by the middle of last year, was established during the anti-government protest movement in 2019 to support arrested and injured protesters.
Pro-Beijing media outlets have criticized its alleged ties with foreign powers, which can constitute a serious crime under the controversial national security law that Beijing introduced in Hong Kong in June 2020. The legislation carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
The arrests – particularly that of the 90-year-old cardinal, one of only two still alive in China – have shocked Hong Kong and many in the international community.
Known as the “rebel bishop” when he headed the Diocese of Hong Kong between 2002 and 2009, Zen has been an active advocate for democracy in the semi-autonomous territory and religious freedoms in mainland China.
The cardinal, who arrived in Hong Kong from Shanghai in 1948, the same year the Chinese Communist Party came to power, was harshly criticized by the Holy See for a controversial agreement between the Vatican and Beijing that allows the Chinese government to “propose” the names of the Catholic bishops that the Church appoints in its territory.
China has 12 million Catholics who are divided between those belonging to the Church that has the approval of the State and those who remain “discreetly” faithful to Rome, a branch whose priests claim they have been marginalized after Beijing and the Vatican reached the aforementioned agreement.
Shortly after Zen’s arrest, the Vatican expressed its “concern” and affirmed that the Holy See “is closely following the evolution of the situation,” according to Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni.
The US State Department said the arrests show that the Hong Kong authorities “pursue all means necessary to stifle dissent and undercut protected rights and freedoms,” while the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister, Mélanie Joly, described what happened as “deeply troubling”.
The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, expressed “great concern” and called for respect for “fundamental freedoms, as guaranteed in Hong Kong’s Basic Law and in the Sino-British Joint Declaration”.
Beijing issued a statement expressing its “great dissatisfaction” with the international criticism that “tarnishes the legitimate actions of law enforcement agencies”, insisting that the detainees had “allegedly colluded with foreign forces and undermined national security”.
“The foreign forces know very well where these people went and what they did. Stop playing dumb!”, the statement said. EFE