Hong Kong High Court rules emergency law banning face masks unconstitutional

Hong Kong High Court rules emergency law banning face masks unconstitutional

Protesters clash with police outside Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in Hong Kong
Protesters wear gas masks during clashes with police outside Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in Hong Kong, China, Nov 17, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter)

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 protesters wearing masks
This combination image created on Oct 4, 2019 shows protesters wearing face masks during demonstrations in Hong Kong. (Photos: AFP/Mark Ralston, Anthony Wallace, Nicolas Asfouri, Mohd Rasfan)

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.

READ: Hong Kong leader says no plan to use emergency powers for other laws

READ: 77 people arrested in Hong Kong for violating anti-mask law: Police

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 clash with police at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in Hong Kong
A masked protester is seen during clashes with police outside Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in Hong Kong, China, Nov 17, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha)

Protesters threw Molotov cocktails at police in Hong Kong
Protesters threw Molotov cocktails at police in Hong Kong AFP/Philip FONG

READ: Hong Kong mask ban challenged in court ahead of Halloween rally

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.

A police officer was shot in the leg by an arrow in Hong Kong
A police officer was shot in the leg by an arrow in Hong Kong AFP/STRINGER

READ: Hong Kong protesters remain defiant amid PolyU campus standoff with police

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.

People are detained by police near the Hong Kong Polytechnic
People are detained by police near the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hung Hom district of Hong Kong on Nov 18, 2019. (Photo: AFP/Dale De La Rey)

Protesters are detained by police near the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hung Hom district
Protesters are detained by police near the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hung Hom district, Nov 18, 2019. (Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace)

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.

READ: US condemns 'unjustified use of force' in Hong Kong: Senior official

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.

Hong Kong weapons seen at the protests
Graphic showing weapons used in Hong Kong during the protests AFP/John SAEKI

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.

Protesters are detained by police near the Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Protesters are detained by police near the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hung Hom district, Nov 18, 2019. (Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace)

Anti-government protesters take cover during clashes with police, outside Hong Kong Polytechnic Uni
Anti-government protesters take cover during clashes with police, outside Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in Hong Kong, China, November 17, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Violence has worsened this month, with two men killed in separate incidents.

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.

MORE: Our coverage of the Hong Kong protests

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Source: Agencies/aj

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