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Why is 90-year-old Cardinal Zen standing trial in Hong Kong? | News

Political activist Alex Chow has not forgotten the kindness of Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the retired head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong, who came to visit him when he was behind bars five years ago.

Cardinal Zen has long been known for his work as a prison chaplain. On the day Chow met him at the Pik Uk correctional centre, a maximum security jail in Hong Kong’s New Territories, the elderly priest had taken a public minibus to the prison, some 40 minutes ride into the hills from the densely-packed city.

The two talked for 45 minutes, “maybe an hour”, with the prison officer giving up his seat so Zen, then in his mid-80s, could sit down.  For Chow, jailed for his role in the peaceful 2014 Occupy Hong Kong protests, the cardinal was a source of comfort and reassurance and a much-needed connection to the outside world.

“It meant a lot to me,” Chow, who was later released on bail ahead of the appeal he eventually won, told Al Jazeera. “I could see his genuine concern for others and staunch opposition to injustice. I felt like I was genuinely in his prayers and one of the people he cared about.”

The 90-year-old former head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong now faces a trial of his own.

On Monday he will face court with five others, including popular Cantopop singer and LGBTQ activist Denise Ho, and lawyer Margaret Ng over a now-defunct fund that they set up to help pay the legal fees of people facing trial in relation to the 2019 protests.

They were arrested in early May under the National Security Law and accused of “colluding with foreign forces”.

Released on bail, they were charged on May 24 with failing to register the fund.

Cardinal Zen was leaning on a walking stick for support as he arrived in court with fellow defendants – scholar Hui Po-keung, left, lawyer Margaret Ng and singer Denise Ho – in May [File: Kin Cheung/AP Photo]

All have pleaded not guilty and, in the five days allocated for proceedings, their defence is expected to argue that the group had a right to associate under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the mini-constitution that has been in place since the British handed the territory over to China in 1997.

Beijing imposed the security law in June 2020.

“The Chinese government wants to cut off all forms of organizing and solidarity that run outside of the Communist Party’s control in Hong Kong,” William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said in an emailed response to questions. “The fact that Cardinal Zen is compassionate, caring, and well-respected in Hong Kong actually makes him a threat to the ruling authorities.”

Vatican criticised

Zen was ordained in 1996 and named Bishop of Hong Kong in 2002, becoming the leader of the territory’s Catholics, now numbering more than 400,000. In 2006, in a ceremony in Rome, he was made a cardinal by Pope Benedict.

Throughout his career, Zen has shown support for democratic reform and giving the people of Hong Kong more say in their government. He held a “walkathon” for universal suffrage, masses in remembrance of the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square and visited the Occupy Hong Kong site to provide moral support to the thousands who had gathered there.

After his retirement in 2009, Zen became more critical of Beijing, which broke off relations with the Vatican in 1951 and created its own Communist Party-led Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. He has been especially critical of a 2018 deal under which Pope Francis recognised seven bishops appointed by Beijing, which was supposed to bring the mainland’s Catholics, thought to number about 12 million, together.

“Cardinal Zen made the ultimate self-sacrifice,” Andreas Fulda, author of The Struggle for Democracy in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera in emailed comments. “Deep down he must have known that the dictatorship in Beijing would never budge. Undeterred he advocated for Christians in mainland China. Firmly committed to the principle of non-violence he was part of an influential ecumenical alliance of faith leaders advocating for liberal democracy in Hong Kong.”

Pope Benedict XVI (L) gives the ring to new cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun during a Holy Mass in St. Peter Square, Saturday 25 March 2006 i
Zen became the head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong in 2002 and was made a cardinal by Pope Benedict in March 2006 [File: Ettore Ferrari/EPA]

The Catholic Church has been criticised for failing to take a firmer stand over Zen’s arrest and trial.

After he was charged on May 24, pictured walking into court leaning heavily on a stick, the church released a short statement noting that he had pleaded not guilty and that it would “closely monitor” events.

“Cardinal Zen is always in our prayers and we invite all to pray for the Church,” it concluded.

On Thursday, when the pope was asked about religious freedom in China and Zen’s looming trial, he said that while it was “not easy to understand the Chinese mentality”, it had to be “respected”, according to a report in Catholic News.

On Zen, he said: “He says what he feels and we see that there are limitations [in Hong Kong]”.

The pope, who spoke as he flew home from the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Kazakhstan, added that he preferred to “choose the path of dialogue”.

Reports said China’s President Xi Jinping, who was also at the meeting, refused an invitation for talks with the pope because his schedule was full.

‘Purpose of life’

Zen’s trial is the latest in connection with the 2019 protests, which began with mass marches against a proposed bill that would allow extradition to the mainland and, amid a perceived lack of action from the government and heavy-handed police tactics, evolved into sometimes violent demands for more democracy in the Chinese-ruled territory.

The group set up the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund in July 2019, naming it after the first serious confrontation between protesters and police the previous month outside the barricaded building of the Legislative Council where politicians had been due to debate the contentious bill. Police used rubber-coated bullets and tear gas against protesters, and dozens were arrested.

They wound up the fund in October last year after police announced that it was under investigation.

The fund’s closure, and the trial of those who founded it, will also have repercussions for the thousands facing charges from the 2019 protests whose legal costs could run into the hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong dollars.

CHRD’s Nee said the lack of funding options could undermine those defendants’ right to a fair trial.

“It was possible before to crowdsource some of these costs but by cutting off the ability to do so, Beijing will make it much more difficult for people to afford the legal resources to mount a solid defence,” he noted.

Zen has been out on bail pending trial.

At his first public appearance after his arrest, he addressed the Salesian Vocations Office (China Province) about his motivations in life and why he had entered the priesthood.

He noted that the world was “chaotic” and that some were driven by the need to pursue “money, wealth, and power” but he believed life meant learning what it means to be a person of integrity, filled with a sense of justice and kindness.

“This is the purpose of life,” the retired bishop said.

Despite his longstanding support for democratic reform, Zen had largely avoided any backlash from the authorities.

After the bishop’s arrest, newly-installed Hong Kong leader John Lee, a former police officer and security chief, said the arrest was not related to Zen’s background or beliefs, but that people who broke the law needed to be held to account.

For Chow, now living in the United States, the decision to arrest and prosecute a man many in Hong Kong regard as the territory’s “moral conscience” is further evidence of how much the territory has changed.

“Him being prosecuted is telling,” he said. “It really shows how the Hong Kong government has shifted its mentality [and] the future trajectory of how it might approach religious freedom or political speech; whether Hong Kong will remain a free society or whether that’s long gone.”

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Japan lodges protest after Russia detains diplomat in Vladivostok | Politics News

Tatsunori Motoki, accused of spying by Russia’s FSB, was held for a few hours before being released and ordered to leave the country.

Japan has accused Russia of “unreasonable” behaviour and threatened “equivalent steps” after the FSB, the Russian federal security agency, detained a diplomat in the eastern port city of Vladivostok and accused him of being a spy.

Tatsunori Motoki, who worked at the Japanese Consulate General in the city, was released after a few hours and declared ‘persona non grata’, Japan’s Kyodo news agency said, citing an unnamed government source. It said Motoki had been ordered to leave Russia within 48 hours.

In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno described Motoki’s detention as “regrettable, unacceptable and unbelievable” and accused the FSB of taking the diplomat into custody in an “intimidating manner”.

Russia’s security agency announced it had detained a Japanese consul in Vladivostok on Monday for alleged espionage and ordered him to leave the country.

“A Japanese diplomat was detained red-handed while receiving classified information, in exchange for money, about Russia’s cooperation with another country in the Asia-Pacific region,” the FSB security service said in a statement, carried by Russian news agencies on Monday.

The diplomat had also been soliciting information about “the impact of Western sanctions” on the eastern Primorsky region, the FSB added, according to the agencies.

Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement the diplomat had been ordered to leave the country within 48 hours, and the FSB had lodged a complaint with Japan.

Local media released footage allegedly showing Motoki receiving documents at what appears to be a restaurant, and him admitting to the accusations during FSB questioning.

Japan’s embassy in Russia earlier lodged a protest about the detention to Moscow’s foreign ministry, saying “it was a clear violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations” and the order to leave the country was “unreasonable”, according to Kyodo.

Russia considers Japan to be a “hostile” country, a designation it shares with all European Union countries, the United States and allies, including the United Kingdom and Australia.

Moscow and Tokyo have traded tit-for-tat sanctions since February 24 when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Even before the war, Tokyo’s relations with Moscow were complex. The two sides are involved in a dispute over islands Russia calls the Kurils and Japan the Northern Territories, which has prevented them from signing a post-war peace treaty.

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First female premier poised to take helm of Italy government

ROME — A party with neo-fascist roots won the most votes in Italy’s national election, setting the stage Monday for talks to form the country’s first far right-led government since World War II, with Giorgia Meloni at the helm as Italy’s first female premier.

Italy’s lurch to the far right immediately shifted Europe’s geopolitics, placing Meloni’s euroskeptic Brothers of Italy in a position to lead a founding member of the European Union and its third-largest economy. Italy’s left warned of “dark days” ahead and vowed to keep Italy in the heart of Europe.

Right-wing leaders across Europe immediately hailed 45-year-old Meloni’s victory as sending a historic, nationalist message to Brussels. It followed a right-wing victory in Sweden and recent gains by the far-right in France and Spain.

Still, turnout in the Italian election Sunday was a historic low of 64%, and pollsters suggested voters stayed home in protest, disenchanted by the backroom deals that had created the country’s last three governments and the mash-up of parties in outgoing Premier Mario Draghi’s national unity government.

By contrast, Meloni was viewed as a new face in the merry-go-round of Italian governments and many Italians appeared to be voting for change, analysts said.

The victory of Meloni’s just 10-year-old Brothers of Italy was more about Italian dissatisfaction with the decades-long status quo than any surge in neo-fascist or far-right sentiment, said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based Institute of International Affairs.

“I would say the main reason why a big chunk of (voters) … will vote for this party is simply because it’s the new kid on the block,” she said.

The election’s sharp swing to the right, “confirms that the Italian electorate remains fickle,″ said London-based political analyst Wolfango Piccoli, noting that an estimated 30% of voters went for a different party than their choice in 2018 elections.

Meloni, whose party traces its origins to the postwar, neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, tried to sound a unifying tone, noting that Italians had finally been able to determine their leaders.

“If we are called to govern this nation, we will do it for everyone. We will do it for all Italians and we will do it with the aim of uniting the people,” said. “shechose us. We will not betray it.”

Near-final results showed the center-right coalition netting 44% of the parliamentary vote, with Meloni’s Brothers of Italy snatching 26% in its biggest win in its decade-long meteoric rise. Her coalition partners divided up the remainder, with the anti-immigrant League party led by Matteo Salvini winning 9% and Forza Italia of ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi taking around 8% of the vote.

The center-left Democratic Party and its allies had around 26% support, while the populist 5-Star Movement — which had been the biggest vote-getter in the 2018 parliamentary election — saw its share of the vote halved to 15%.

While the center-right was the clear winner, the formation of a government is still weeks away and will involve consultations among party leaders and with President Sergio Mattarella. In the meantime, Draghi remains in a caretaker role.

The elections, which took place six months early after Draghi’s government collapsed, came at a crucial time for Europe as it faces Russia’s war in Ukraine and related soaring energy costs that have hit ordinary Italians as well as industry.

A Meloni-led government is largely expected to follow Italy’s current foreign policy, including her pro-NATO stance and strong support for supplying Ukraine with weapons to defend itself against Russia’s invasion, even as her coalition allies take a different tone.

Both Berlusconi and Salvini have ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. While both have distanced themselves from his invasion of Ukraine, Salvini has warned that EU sanctions against Moscow are hurting Italian industry. Berlusconi has even excused Putin’s invasion as an event foisted upon him by pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas.

A bigger shift and one likely to cause friction with other EU nations is likely to come over migration. Meloni has called for a naval blockade to prevent migrant boats from leaving North African shores, and has proposed screening potential asylum-seekers in Africa, not Europe.

Salvini has made clear he wants the League to recapture the interior minister post, where he once imposed a tough anti-migrant policy. But he may face an internal leadership challenge, with Meloni’s party outperforming the League even in its northeastern stronghold.

On relations with the EU, analysts note that for all her euroskeptic rhetoric, Meloni moderated her message during the campaign and has little room to maneuver, given the economic windfall Italy is receiving from Brussels in coronavirus recovery funds. Italy secured 191.5 billion euros, the biggest chunk of the EU’s 750 billion-euro recovery package, and is bound by certain reform and investment milestones to receive it all.

That said, Meloni has criticized the EU’s recent recommendation to suspend 7.5 billion euros in funding to Hungary over concerns about democratic backsliding, defending autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orban as the elected leader in a democratic system.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen praised Meloni for having “resisted the threats of an anti-democratic and arrogant European Union.”

Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain’s far-right Vox opposition party, tweeted that Meloni “has shown the way for a proud and free Europe of sovereign nations that can cooperate on behalf of everybody’s security and prosperity.”

Meloni is chair of the right-wing European Conservative and Reformist group in the European Parliament, which includes her Brothers of Italy, Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice Party, Spain’s far-right Vox and the right-wing Sweden Democrats, which just won big there on a platform of cracking down on crime and limiting immigration.

“The trend that emerged two weeks ago in Sweden was confirmed in Italy,” acknowledged Democratic Party leader Enrico Letta, calling Monday a “sad day for Italy, for Europe.”

“We expect dark days. We fought in every way to avoid this outcome,″ Letta said at a somber news conference. “(The Democratic Party) will not allow Italy to leave the heart of Europe.”

Thomas Christiansen, professor of political science at Rome’s Luiss University and the executive editor of the Journal of European Integration, noted that Italy has a tradition of pursuing a consistent foreign and European policy that is bigger than individual party interests.

“Whatever Meloni might be up to will have to be moderated by her coalition partners and indeed with the established consensus of Italian foreign policy,” Christiansen said.

———

Colleen Barry contributed from Milan.

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Tense Japan holds funeral for assassinated ex-leader Abe

TOKYO — A tense Japan prepared Tuesday for a rare and controversial state funeral for assassinated former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the longest-serving leader in his nation’s modern history and one of the most divisive.

Tokyo was under maximum security, with angry protests opposing the funeral planned around the capital and nation. Hours before the ceremony began, dozens of people carrying bouquets of flowers queued at public flower-laying stands at nearby Kudanzaka park.

Thousands of uniformed police mobilized around the Budokan hall, where the funeral is being held, and at major train stations. Roads around the venue are closed throughout the day, and coin lockers at main stations were sealed for security. World leaders, including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, were in town for the funeral.

Opponents of the state-sponsored funeral, which has its roots in prewar imperial ceremonies, say taxpayers’ money should be spent on more meaningful causes, such as addressing widening economic disparities caused by Abe’s policies.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has been criticized for forcing through the costly event to honor his mentor, Abe, who was assassinated in July. There has also been a widening controversy about Abe’s and the governing party’s decades-long close ties with the ultra-conservative Unification Church, accused of raking in huge donations by brainwashing adherents. Abe’s alleged assassin reportedly told police he killed the politician because of his links to the church; he said his mother ruined his life by giving away the family’s money to the church.

Kishida says the longest-serving leader in Japan’s modern political history deserves a state funeral. The government also maintains that the ceremony is not meant to force anyone to honor Abe. Most of the nation’s 47 prefectural governments, however, plan to fly national flags at half-staff and observe a moment of silence.

Opponents say Kishida’s one-sided decision, which was made without parliamentary approval, was undemocratic, and a reminder of how prewar imperialist governments used state funerals to fan nationalism. The prewar funeral law was abolished after World War II. The only postwar state funeral for a political leader, for Shigeru Yoshida in 1967, also faced similar criticism.

“Spending our valuable tax money on a state funeral with no legal basis is an act that tramples on the constitution,” organizer Takakage Fujita said at a protest Monday.

About 1.7 billion yen ($11.8 million) is needed for the venue, security, transportation and accommodation for the guests, the government said.

A group of lawyers has filed a number of lawsuits in courts around the country to try to stop the funeral. An elderly man last week set himself on fire near the prime minister’s office in an apparent protest of the funeral.

In what some see as an attempt to further justify the honor for Abe, Kishida has launched a series of meetings with visiting foreign leaders in what he calls “funeral diplomacy.” The talks are meant to strengthen ties as Japan faces regional and global challenges, including threats from China, Russia and North Korea. He was to meet about 40 foreign leaders through Wednesday. No Group of Seven leaders are attending.

Kishida met about 10 dignitaries Monday, including Harris, Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Philippine Vice President Sara Duterte. He will meet with his Australian and Indian counterparts separately and host a reception Tuesday.

About 4,300 people, including Japanese lawmakers and foreign and local dignitaries, are attending the funeral.

Japanese troops will line the streets around the venue, and 20 of them will act as honor guards outside of Abe’s home as his family leaves for the funeral. There will then be a 19-volley salute.

The ceremony will start when Abe’s widow, Akie Abe, enters the hall carrying an urn containing her husband’s ashes, placed in a wooden box and wrapped in white cloth. The former leader was cremated after a private funeral at a Tokyo temple days after his death.

Government, parliamentary and judicial representatives, including Kishida, will make condolence speeches, followed by Akie Abe.

The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Japanese Communist Party are boycotting the funeral, along with others.

Abe’s opponents recall his attempts to whitewash Japan’s wartime atrocities, his push for more military spending, his reactionary view of gender roles and a leadership seen as autocratic and supportive of cronyism.

Protests of the funeral have increased as more details emerged about Abe’s and LDP lawmakers’ connection to the Unification Church. The South Korea-based church has built close ties with LDP lawmakers over shared interests in conservative causes.

“The fact that the close ties between the LDP and the Unification Church may have interfered with policymaking processes is seen by the Japanese people as a greater threat to democracy than Abe’s assassination,” wrote Hosei University political science professor Jiro Yamaguchi in a recent article.

Abe’s grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, helped the church take root in Japan and is now seen as a key figure in the scandal. Opponents say holding a state funeral for Abe is equivalent to an endorsement of ruling party ties to the Unification Church.

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