Hong Kong court rejects mask ban challenge as fresh protests break out

Anti-government protest in Hong Kong. Photograph:( Reuters )

AFP Hong Kong, China Oct 06, 2019, 01.21 PM (IST)

A Hong Kong court rejected on Sunday a challenge to an emergency law criminalising protesters wearing face masks as democracy activists hit the streets again in defiance of the ban despite half the city's subway stations remaining closed.

Thousands of protesters have staged unsanctioned flashmob rallies across the strife-torn city -- some vandalising subway stations and shops -- after Hong Kong's leader outlawed face coverings at protests, invoking colonial-era emergency powers not used for half a century.

Pro-democracy lawmakers went to the High Court on Sunday seeking an emergency injunction against the ban, arguing the emergency powers bypassed the legislature and contravened the city's mini-constitution.

But a senior judge dismissed their injunction demand.

As the ruling was being delivered, two unsanctioned rallies were kicking off on both sides of Victoria Harbour, with thousands of masked protesters gathering in torrential downpours.

After four months of huge and increasingly violent protests, the city's unelected pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam invoked a sweeping colonial-era law on Friday allowing her to make "any regulations whatsoever" during a time of public danger.

She used it to ban masks -- which protesters have used to hide their identity or protect from tear gas -- and warned she would use the powers to make new regulations if the unrest did not abate.

The move was welcomed by government supporters and Beijing.

But opponents and protesters saw it as the start of a slippery slope tipping the international finance hub into authoritarianism.

"I would say this is one of the most important constitutional cases in the history of Hong Kong," lawmaker Dennis Kwok told reporters before the ruling.

"If this emergency law just gets a pass just like that Hong Kong will be deemed into a very black hole," he added, previously likening Lam to the autocratic English monarch Henry VIII.

Two teen protesters shot

Hong Kong has been battered a summer of rage as widespread public anger seethes 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 ahead of the 1997 handover by Britain.

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

Lam has refused major concessions but struggled to come up with any political solution, leaving police and demonstrators to fight increasingly violent battles as the city tips into recession.

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.

A 14-year-old boy was then shot and wounded Friday night when a plainclothes police officer, who was surrounded by a mob of protesters throwing petrol bombs, fired his sidearm. 

That night, masked protesters went on a rampage in dozens of locations, trashing subway stations and businesses with mainland China ties.

The city's subway system -- which carries four million people daily -- was shut down entirely Friday night and throughout Saturday, bringing much of the metropolis to a halt.

Major supermarket chains and malls announced they were closing, leading to long lines and panic buying.

Thousands of masked protesters still came out onto the streets throughout Saturday despite the mask ban and transport gridlock, although the crowds were smaller than recent rallies.

Subway partially reopens

On Sunday, the subway operator said 45 stations would open but 48 remained shuttered, many of them in the heart of the city's main tourist districts as well as those areas hit hardest by the protests and vandalism.

Lam has defended her use of the emergency powers and said that she is willing to issue more executive orders if the violence continues.

"We cannot allow rioters any more to destroy our treasured Hong Kong," Lam said in a stony-faced video statement on Saturday.

But protesters have vowed to keep hitting the streets.

"The anti-face mask law is the first step," Hosun Lee, a protester in Causeway Bay, told AFP, saying he feared more laws under the emergency order were on the way.

Protester demands include an independent inquiry into the police, an amnesty for the more than 2,000 people arrested and universal suffrage -- all requests rejected by Lam and Beijing.

Story highlights

Pro-democracy lawmakers went to the High Court on Sunday seeking an emergency injunction against the ban, arguing the emergency powers bypassed the legislature and contravened the city's mini-constitution.