Tuesday 15 October 2019

Hong Kong protesters take mask ban to court as city grinds to a nervy halt

Masked protesters return to the streets of Hong Kong. Photo: Getty Images
Masked protesters return to the streets of Hong Kong. Photo: Getty Images

John Leicester

A group of pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong have filed a legal challenge against the government's use of a colonial-era emergency law to criminalise the wearing of face masks at protests.

The mask ban that came into effect at midnight on Friday triggered an overnight rash of widespread violence and destruction in the city, including the starting of fires and attacks on an off-duty police officer who fired a live shot in self-defence that injured a teenage protester.

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Two activists failed to obtain a court injunction on Friday against the mask ban, which the government says have made it tough for police to identify radical protesters.

In a second bid, Dennis Kwok said a group of 24 legislators filed a legal appeal to block the anti-mask law on wider constitutional grounds.

He said the city's leader Carrie Lam acted in bad faith by bypassing the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's parliament, in invoking the emergency law. He said: "This is a Henry the 8th situation. This is basically I say what is law... and I say when that ceases to be law. That's not how our constitution works. We say that she doesn't have such powers - that she cannot avoid the Legislative Council."

The court will hear the case on Sunday morning.

Carrie Lam has said she will seek the council's backing for the law when its session resumes on October 16, and did not ruled out further measures if violence continues.

Dennis Kwok said the group also asked the court to rule that the Emergency Ordinance - enacted by British colonial rulers in 1922 to quell a seamen's strike and last used in 1967 to crush riots - was incompatible with rights and freedoms under Hong Kong's constitution that was put in place after it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Fellow politician Claudia Mo called the Emergency Ordinance a "weapon of mass destruction" that could pave the way for more draconian regulations.

In a televised address -broadcast yesterday as protesters again marched in masks - Carrie Lam described Hong Kong as "semi-paralysed" and claimed the mask ban was needed to stop the violence. She added: "The government needs to take drastic measures to say no to violence, restore peace in society, protect citizens' right to continue their daily lives and freedom, not allowing a small group of rioters to destroy it."

Many shopping centres, shops and the entire MTR rail network that usually handle more than four million trips a day shut yesterday following the overnight rampage.

Many peaceful protesters say violence has become a means to an end, the only way for young masked protesters to force the government to bend to clamours for full democracy and other demands.

But the shooting of the teen on Friday night - the second victim of gunfire since the protests began in June - stoked fears of more bloody confrontations.

Police said yesterday that the 14-year-old who was hospitalised with a gunshot wound on his thigh has been arrested for participating in a riot and assaulting a policeman. Police have said they are still investigating exactly how he got shot.

An 18-year-old protester was also shot at close range by a police officer on Tuesday.

Protesters in masks popped up in the central business district on Saturday afternoon, carrying a yellow banner marked 'Glory to Hong Kong' and shouting: "Hong Kong, resist!"

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