Hong Kong leader, Carrie Lam, on Friday, banned the wearing of face masks at “unlawful and unauthorized” protests in order to help quell the violent demonstrations that have rocked the city for nearly four months.
“Although we are evoking the emergency regulation, Hong Kong is not in a state of emergency,’’ Lam said.
She added that public order was now in danger from radical student protesters who had vandalized underground stations and thrown petrol bombs at police.
The regulation, which is due to go into effect at midnight (1600 GMT), says protesters could face up to one year in prison and a fine of up to 25,000 Hong Kong dollars ($3,187) for failing to comply under the new legislation.
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The law offers exemptions to residents who need to wear face coverings for medical conditions, religious reasons or professional employment. It will only extend to “unlawful assemblies” of more than five people. Although, most anti-government demonstrations in recent weeks have proceeded without approval as police failed to give approval to marches organized by the democracy coalition Civil Human Rights Front.
“By banning the use of facial coverings, this will prevent people from breaking the law. “This is not unreasonable,’’ said Secretary for Security, John Lee. “We see that public order in Hong Kong is under serious threat. “Some acted violently, very violently.
“So now, everyone – journalists, citizens, and police – is in danger.’’ Masks have been worn across the protest movement, including by journalists and medical volunteers, to conceal identity but also for safety as police regularly fire tear gas and pepper spray for crowd dispersal.
Journalists, however, will be exempted from the law, according to Lee. The mask regulation makes use of little-used legislation from 1922 that grants the chief executive sweeping powers, although it will have to be approved formally when the legislature returns to session in two weeks to become law.
The decision, which was leaked by local media on Thursday, has already been widely criticized as unconstitutional and Lam’s use of the Emergency Regulations Ordinance will likely face a judicial review by Hong Kong’s common-law courts. “When the legislation was enacted, there was no human rights law in effect during that time.
“The law itself gives full power to the government to regulate any behaviour considered unsuitable,’’ Billy Li, a convenor of Hong Kong’s Progressive Lawyers’ Group, told dpa. Since 1922, Hong Kong has become a party to a number of intentional human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, he said.
A mask ban may be more challenging to overturn as similar laws exist in other common-law jurisdictions. Canada in 2013 introduced an anti-mask law for “riots and unlawful assemblies’’ that carries up to 10 years in prison. A number of U.S. states and cities also have historic anti-mask laws, many of which are linked to the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan group.
Li, however, said the anti-mask legislation would likely have little or no deterrent effect as the threat of jail time for “unlawful assembly” and “rioting” has not kept Hong Kongers from the streets since demonstrations began on June 9. The mask ban was expected to lead to more protests over the weekend, even as demonstrations near the four-month mark.
They began against a separate piece of legislation also championed by Lam that would have allowed for Hong Kong residents to stand trial in mainland China.
Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong said on Twitter on Friday that the mask law was “no less harmful than the extradition bill as virtually the law gives the Chief Executive mighty power to impose whatever she and Beijing like’’.
He also tweeted that Hong Kong would see more “arbitrary arrest and search, extending detention to 96 hours or more, banning internet access, de facto martial laws are highly expected’’.