HONG KONG: Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced on Friday (Oct 4) an emergency law to ban protesters from wearing face masks from Saturday, in a dramatic move intended to quell escalating violence in the city.
Mrs Lam said during a news conference that the ban will be introduced under a law that allows authorities to "make any regulations whatsoever" in the public interest.
It is the first time the Emergency Regulations Ordinance has been invoked in 52 years.
"CHAOTIC AND PANICKED SITUATION"
Many protesters wear masks to hide their identity due to fears employers could face pressure to take action against them.
"We believe that the law will create a deterrent effect against masked violent protesters and rioters, and will assist the police in its law enforcement," Mrs Lam said.
She said the protests over the extradition Bill have continued for almost four months, with escalating violence, and have reached a "very alarming level" that has led the city to a "chaotic and panicked situation".
"We are particularly concerned that many students are participating in these violent protests, or even riots - jeopardising their safety and even their future," Mrs Lam said.
She added that the government has to use all available means to stop the violence.
The decision to invoke the Emergency Regulations Ordinance was a difficult, but necessary one for the public interest, she added.
"We are now in rather extensive and serious public danger. It is essential for us to stop violence and restore calmness in society as soon as possible," she said.
But she stressed her use of the powers did not mean the government had officially declared a state of emergency.
"Although the ordinance carries the title emergency, Hong Kong is not in a state of emergency," Mrs Lam said.
When asked whether she had gotten Beijing's approval to enact the measure, given that she was in Beijing for the Oct 1 celebrations marking 70 years of Communist Party rule, Mrs Lam said there were no discussions about the matter.
"As in all other things relating to this exercise, I have said time and again that this is something that we will handle within Hong Kong, in accordance with one country two systems," she said.
"There was absolutely no interaction, discussion, encounters whatsoever with any central people's government officials on this matter during my very brief stay in Beijing."
She rounded up the press conference by saying she would continue with public dialogue to find solutions to the "deep-seated social problems in Hong Kong".
HOW WILL FACE MASK BAN BE ENFORCED?
It is also not clear how a face mask ban would be enforceable.
Since a deadly SARS outbreak in 2003, face masks have become ubiquitous in Hong Kong.
Even moderate protesters have already shown a willingness to break the law in huge numbers, appearing at unsanctioned rallies in their tens of thousands.
Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said a mask ban might deter some moderates from hitting the streets.
"But it could well have the effect of bringing more people out simply because they feel the need to protest against the exercise of executive authority," he told AFP.
PROTEST AHEAD OF BAN
Hundreds of masked protesters, mostly office workers, rallied in the city's commercial district ahead of the ban being announced on Friday.
"Police brutality is becoming more serious and the set up of an anti-mask law is to threaten us from protesting," said one protester, who asked to be identified as just Chan, a 27-year-old financial industry worker.
Government critics also warned the move was a major step towards authoritarianism for Hong Kong.
"This is a watershed. This is a Rubicon," lawmaker Claudia Mo told AFP.
"And I'm worried this could be just a starter. More draconian bans in the name of law could be lurking around the corner."
READ: What's next for Hong Kong's protest movement
During the 1967 riots - a period where more than 50 people were killed in a year-long leftist bombing and murder spree - the British used the emergency laws to give police extra powers of arrest and roll out widespread censorship of the press.
But critics countered that bypassing the legislature and giving Lam the power to make any law would be a slippery slope for an international finance hub that owes its economic success to its reputation for rule of law and judicial independence.
This comes after Hong Kong was rocked by the worst violence over the last few months on Tuesday, the same day China celebrated 70 years of Communist Party rule.
Street battles raged for hours between riot police and hardcore protesters while a teenager who was part of a group that attacked police with umbrellas and poles was shot in the chest with a live round - the first such shooting since the protests began.
The student, Tony Tsang Chi-kin, was shot at close range as he fought an officer with what appeared to be a white pole. He has been charged with rioting, which carries a maximum 10-year sentence, and assaulting an officer. Tsang is in stable condition in hospital.
UNITED NATIONS RESPONDS TO BAN
On Friday, the United Nations human rights office said that any new government measures to cope with protests in Hong Kong must be grounded in law and protect the right to freedom of assembly.
Any use of force should be exceptional and only in compliance with international standards, including the principles of necessity and proportionality, UN human rights spokeswoman Marta Hurtado told a Geneva briefing.
"Any restriction must have a basis in law and be proportionate and as least intrusive as possible. Freedom of peaceful assembly is a fundamental right and should be enjoyed without restriction to the greatest extent possible."
The use of firearms was only acceptable as a "last resort", and only to protect against an immediate threat, she added.
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