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Hong Kong high court upholds ban on emergency protest masks

Hong Kong high court upholds ban on emergency protest masks

 The Hong Kong government's decision to use a colonial-era emergency law to ban face masks in protests last year was proportionate and legal, the city's high court ruled on Monday.

The ruling is a blow to democracy supporters who hoped that the Final Appeal Court would side with a lower court and overturn the order.

It also confirms that Hong Kong's chief executive, appointed in favor of Beijing, has the power to enact any law at a time of public emergency without the need for approval from the city's partially elected legislature.

But its practical consequences were unclear, given that the government has made masks mandatory in public areas to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Hong Kong was in turmoil for seven straight months of huge and often violent pro-democracy protests last year.

Eventually, they were overturned by mass arrests, a virus-related ban on public gatherings, and Beijing imposing a new national security law on the city in June.

Masks became ubiquitous to reduce the risk of identification and prosecution of those participating in peaceful marches or violent clashes with the police.

In October last year, CEO Carrie Lam banned anyone from covering their face at public rallies, using the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, a British colonial law from 1922.

Opposition lawmakers challenged both the use of that emergency law and the ban on wearing masks at permitted rallies.

They argued that the measure violated Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.

A lower court agreed with those who filed the challenge and expressed concern about the emergency law and the proportionality of the mask ban.

But on Monday, a panel of senior judges unanimously backed the government.

"The scope of the power to make subsidiary legislation under the ERO in an emergency situation or in circumstances of public danger, although broad and flexible, was not unconstitutional," the judges ruled.

The ban on face masks in both legal and illegal demonstrations was proportionate because it aimed to "prevent and deter violence before a peaceful public gathering turned into violence."

Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong lawyer who has written books on the city's protest movement, said the judges' findings could be controversial.

"Most surprising is the extent to which the Final Appeal Court ruling privileges one narrative - of 'violence and anarchy' - over any other, and without the broader context in which those incidents occurred, in reaching its conclusion" , said. AFP.

Hong Kong's judiciary has come under significant pressure in the politically polarized atmosphere that has engulfed the city.

Supporters of democracy have criticized some judgments that go against their side.

But the judges have also come under intense criticism from powerful pro-Beijing politicians and newspapers, especially when those suspected of demonstrating were acquitted.

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