Hong Kong court reinstates mask ban at public gatherings
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Hong Kong’s court of final appeal has reinstated a full ban on wearing masks at public gatherings, ruling in favour of the government’s use of colonial-era laws.

The decision overturns the ruling by an appeal court in April, which found the ban, made unilaterally by the city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, at the peak of 2019’s protests, was partly unconstitutional in that it could not be declared for lawful public gatherings. It also upheld the constitutionality of using the colonial-era ordinances for the first time in half a century.

The restoration of the blanket ban comes as Hong Kong battles a resurgent Covid-19 outbreak with regulations that include mandatory mask wearing in public places.

During the pandemic the government has been accused of using health measures to prevent acts of protest, including Tiananmen Square massacre vigils or small, socially distanced demonstrations.

The ruling by the court of final appeal said there was “a clear societal benefit” in the ban when weighted against the “limited extent of the encroachment on the protected rights in question”.

The five judges appeared to largely rely on the government narrative of the 2019 protest movement, describing in detail violence and alleged unlawful behaviour by demonstrators, including disputed and unverified claims, and determining “something had to be done”.

It said the ban was proportionate as it aimed to prevent any gathering from deteriorating into violence.

“Although some people might wish to demonstrate in public but with facial covering as a form of expression or for reasons of privacy, there were others who might wish to demonstrate peacefully but who were deterred from doing so because of the ongoing violence,” the court said.

“The interests of Hong Kong as a whole should be taken into account, since the rule of law itself was being undermined by the actions of masked lawbreakers.”

The ruling said protesters with their faces covered were seemingly able to act with impunity. More than 10,000 people have been arrested for taking part in the demonstrations, and more than 2,300 prosecuted.

Millions of people took to Hong Kong’s streets in 2019, mostly in lawful, approved gatherings. The wearing of masks was ubiquitous, even before the pandemic, as protesters sought to conceal their identity or protect themselves from teargas and pepper spray by police.

Police responses escalated as the protest movement evolved, and were often labelled excessive and brutal. An analysis of the protest dynamics by international experts found the police response was likely to have exacerbated the violence.

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