A law banning people from wearing masks at protests is unconstitutional, a court ruled, dealing a setback to city authorities who imposed the measure under emergency powers to address increasingly violent antigovernment protests.
Hong Kong’s High Court said in its judgment Monday that the ban imposed on Oct. 4 is excessive, despite the turmoil engulfing the city. The legal challenge was made by a group of pro-democracy legislators in the city.
“The measure adopted exceeds what is reasonably necessary to achieve the aim of law enforcement, investigation and prosecution of violent protesters even in the prevailing turbulent circumstances in Hong Kong, and that it fails to strike a reasonable balance between the societal benefits promoted and the inroads made into the protected rights,” the ruling said.
The decision comes after a week of unrelenting battles between protesters and police following more than five months of social unrest.
The ruling, which can be appealed to the city’s Court of Final Appeal, could make it harder for the government to invoke colonial-era emergency powers to introduce other measures to tackle social unrest that has disrupted the city for more than five months.
Monday’s ruling also will likely raise tensions with authorities in Beijing, which has called for a stronger response from government authorities and the city’s independent judiciary, to quell the unrest in the city.
“The decision speaks volumes for Hong Kong’s judicial independence and the rule of law, that even in such a politically sensitive issue and at a time of heightened tensions, the courts will still act without fear or favor,” said Kevin Yam, a lawyer and former convener of the Progressive Lawyers Group.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who has largely kept out of public view during the past week as clashes raged across the city, rolled out the mask ban last month. The law prohibited face coverings at larger public gatherings and allowed police to order the removal of such masks. Those who defied the ban faced fines and possible prison sentences.
The imposition of the mask ban marked the first use of emergency powers by the city’s government since leftist riots shook the city in 1967 during China’s Cultural Revolution.
The ban sparked a violent backlash as protesters took to the streets in defiance. Many protesters have continued to wear face masks to shield their identities or protect themselves from tear gas, and police have arrested a number of people under the law.