First Hong Kongers appear in court for defying mask ban

First Hong Kongers appear in court for defying mask ban

Protesters covered themselves with umbrellas as they gathered outside the Eastern District Courts in
Protesters covered themselves with umbrellas as they gathered outside the Eastern District Courts in Hong Kong. (Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan)

HONG KONG: Hong Kong protesters arrested for defying a new face mask ban appeared in court on Monday (Oct 7) following a violent weekend of unrest which saw bloody clashes with police and widespread vandalism that crippled the city's train network.

The international finance hub convulsed with three straight days of rallies and riots after the city's pro-Beijing leader invoked colonial-era emergency powers to ban face coverings at protests.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the measure was needed to try and quash four months of huge and increasingly violent rallies. 

READ: Hong Kong's public safety 'jeopardised', says government after violent weekend clashes

Hong Kong protester wearing mask at court
A man wearing a face mask arrives in a police vehicle at the Eastern District Courts in Hong Kong, Oct 7, 2019. (Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan)

But the ban did little to halt the chaos or stop huge crowds of masked protesters from hitting the streets in defiance as opponents decried the move as a slide towards authoritarianism.

On Monday morning, a male university student and a 38-year-old woman were the first two people to be charged with illegally wearing a mask as supporters packed the courtroom, many wearing face coverings.

They were both charged with unlawful assembly, which carries up to three years' jail time, and with defying the mask ban, which has a maximum one-year sentence. Both were released on bail.

READ: Protesters target China's Hong Kong barracks with laser lights

Outside the court demonstrators queued to get in, some chanting slogans such as "Wearing a face mask isn't a crime" and "The law is unjust".

Many said they feared the mask ban was just the first of more emergency orders to come.

"It's an excuse to just introduce other totalitarian laws, next is martial law," one protester outside the court, who gave his surname Lo, told AFP.

INTERNET NEXT?

In a radio interview, a government Cabinet member suggested Internet curbs could be introduced, a move which would have profound repercussions for the city.

Hong Kong chaos infographic

"At this stage, the government will consider all legal means to stop the riots," Executive Council member Ip Kwok-him told Commercial Radio. "We would not rule out a ban on the Internet."

Protesters use online forums and encrypted messaging apps to mobilise and organise.

READ: Hong Kong police warn protesters against 'brutal attacks' on citizens

On the mainland, Beijing flexed its muscles by pulling a top US basketball team's games from state broadcaster CCTV after its manager posted a tweet featuring the message "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong".

Houston Rockets boss Daryl Morey attempted to calm the water with a string of emollient tweets and the NBA tried to distance itself from the comments.

But CCTV said it was "strongly opposed" to Morey's "improper remarks" and would no longer air Rockets games.

READ: Video of mainlander assaulted in Hong Kong sparks outrage in China

Hong Kong has been battered by 18 consecutive weekends of unrest, fanned by widespread public anger over Chinese rule and the police response to protests.

The rallies were ignited by a now-scrapped plan to allow extraditions to the mainland, which fuelled fears of an erosion of liberties promised under the 50-year "one country, two systems" model China agreed to ahead of the 1997 handover by Britain.

After Beijing and local leaders took a hard stance, the demonstrations snowballed into a wider movement calling for more freedoms and police accountability.

Lam has refused major concessions, but struggled to come up with any political solution.

The last week has seen a particularly intense period of protest.

READ: Teen shot in Hong Kong during protests sparked by anti-mask law: Reports

Hong Kong police fired tear gas at pro-democracy protesters after tens of thousands hit the streets
Hong Kong police fired tear gas at protesters after tens of thousands hit the streets once more. (Photo: AFP/Nicolas Asfouri)

The worst clashes to date erupted on Tuesday as China celebrated 70 years of Communist Party rule, with a teenager shot and wounded by police as he attacked an officer.

On Friday, Lam announced the face mask ban, sparking renewed protests in which a 14-year-old boy was shot and wounded when a plainclothes police officer, who was surrounded by a mob of protesters throwing petrol bombs, fired his sidearm.

Throughout the weekend largely peaceful flash mob rallies and marches featuring people wearing masks broke out across the city.

But more hardcore protesters went on the rampage, trashing multiple subway stations, ransacking government offices and vandalising businesses with mainland ties.

PLA WARNING

Sunday witnessed the largest protests, with police firing tear gas to disperse tens of thousands of people marching on the main island. Clashes broke out at multiple other locations throughout the day.

In one incident, a taxi driver was beaten bloody in the district of Sham Shui Po after he drove into a crowd that had surrounded his car, pinning a wounded woman between his vehicle and a shop.

READ: Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam should resign, says Malaysia PM Mahathir

Protesters smash a taxi after the driver drove onto the pavement Cheung Sha Wan Road
Protesters smash a taxi after the driver drove onto the pavement, hitting two protesters along Cheung Sha Wan Road, during a demonstration in Hong Kong, Oct 6, 2019. (Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace)

A warning flag was even raised on the roof of a People's Liberation Army barracks after protesters shone laser pens at the building, the first time Chinese troops in the city have made such a move.

The city's subway system - which carries up to 4 million people a day - has been largely out of action since Friday night with only a small number of stations open and a limited number of lines running.

Many major supermarket and convenience store chains closed down or operated limited hours, sparking panic buying and long lines.

Lam, who has record-low approval ratings, defended her use of the emergency powers and warned she would make more measures if the unrest did not abate.

READ: Indonesian journalist hit by rubber bullet while covering protests in Hong Kong

A taxi driver was beaten up and his vehicle trashed after he drove into a crowd of protesters,
A taxi driver was beaten up and his vehicle trashed after he drove into a crowd of protesters, injuring two women. (Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace)

The law, last used by the British during riots in 1967, allows her to bypass parliament and make "any regulations whatsoever" during a time of public danger.

But opponents say the law has sparked a constitutional crisis and undermined Hong Kong's reputation as a finance hub built on rule of law and an independent judiciary.

MORE: Our coverage of the Hong Kong protests

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Source: AFP/zl

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