China on Thursday justified the arrest in Hong Kong of a 90-year-old Catholic cardinal under national security law, an act that sparked international outrage and heightened concern over the worsening repression in the financial center.
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.
"The individuals involved 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 Office of the Commissioner, who represents the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement. from Beijing to Hong Kong.
All four 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, all released on bail on Wednesday evening, join more than 180 Hong Kongers arrested in the name of the drastic national security law imposed by Beijing in June 2020.
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" and the Vatican said it was "following the development of the situation with extreme attention".
The Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs described this wave of arrests as “deeply worrying” and the head of diplomacy of the European Union Josep Borrell expressed his “great concern”.
“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 the 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 its assets were frozen on behalf of the 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.