HONG KONG: Hong Kong's High Court on Monday (Nov 18) ruled that an emergency law invoked by the government last month to ban protesters from wearing face masks is unconstitutional.
It said the law was "incompatible with the Basic Law", the mini-constitution under which Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
"The restrictions it imposes on fundamental rights... go further than is reasonably necessary... and therefore fail to meet the proportionality test," the court said, according to a press summary.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Oct 4 invoked a rarely used colonial-era law to ban protesters from wearing face masks, in a dramatic move intended to quell escalating violence in the city.
It was the first time the Emergency Regulations Ordinance has been invoked in 52 years.
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.
During the six months of protests, face masks have become ubiquitous as demonstrators try to avoid being identified by police.
The new law makes it illegal to wear a mask at a sanctioned or unsanctioned rally, with up to a year in prison for transgressors.
Hong Kongers will still be allowed to wear face masks in the street - a common practice in a city ever since a SARS outbreak killed more than 300 people in 2003.
But police are allowed to force people to take their masks off, with six months in jail for those who refuse.
Exemptions have been made for legitimate religious and medical reasons and for those who need to wear masks for their jobs - such as journalists donning gas masks during tear gas clashes.
PROTESTERS CONTINUE TO CLASH WITH POLICE
Carrie Lam's move last month to invoke the law was seen as a watershed legal moment for the city, but has been largely symbolic.
Demonstrators - most of them wearing masks - have continued to clash with police, often violently, as they press their demands for greater democracy for Hong Kong, as well as an independent inquiry into alleged brutality by the increasingly unpopular police force.
On Monday, police fired volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets to force back dozens of protesters who tried to escape the besieged campus of Polytechnic University, after a night of mayhem in which major roads and a police armored van were set alight and a police officer was shot with an arrow.
The violence extended a dangerous new phase of the crisis, which over the past week has seen schools shut down, roads barricaded and Chinese soldiers briefly leave their local barracks to clean up streets.
Dozens of protesters were arrested near the university on Monday morning, public broadcaster RTHK reported, while in the nearby commercial area of Nathan Road activists stopped traffic and forced shopping malls and stores to shut.
Live video showed protesters with their hands tied behind their backs sitting cross-legged on a road as riot police stood guard in one of the busiest commercial and tourist districts.
Police said they fired three live rounds when "rioters" attacked two officers who were attempting to arrest a woman. No one was injured in the incident and the woman escaped.
Chinese soldiers in a base close to the university were seen on Sunday monitoring developments at the university with binoculars, some dressed in riot gear.
The city's Cross Harbour Tunnel linking Hong Kong island to the Kowloon peninsula remained shuttered and protesters torched a footbridge that crosses the highway to the tunnel, authorities said.
Some train services and many roads across the Kowloon peninsula remained closed. All schools were shut.
The nearly six-months of unrest has rocked previously stable Hong Kong, tipping the international financial hub into recession and frightening off tourists.
What began as a series of mostly peaceful demonstrations against a now-shelved Bill to allow extradition to the Chinese mainland has morphed into wider calls for democracy and an inquiry into alleged police brutality.
China has refused to budge on any of the protesters' key demands, which include free elections for the city of 7.5 million people.
China has instead repeatedly warned it will not tolerate any dissent, and concerns are growing it could intervene militarily to quell the unrest.
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