Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam has invoked rarely used emergency laws to ban the wearing of face masks at protests, a move that is expected to provoke an angry backlash from the pro-democracy movement.
Ministers said the law would make it easier to identify and prosecute those taking part in the sorts of violent protests that have plagued the city since the unrest began in June.
Ms Lam announced the measure at a news conference on Friday, saying her government could not stand by as Hong Kong entered a “state of extensive and serious public danger”.
The text of the emergency anti-mask law, handed out to reporters, stated that protesters wearing masks faced up to one year in prison. Anyone on the street who refuses to remove a face mask when asked to do so by a police officer will be liable to up to six months in prison, it said.
The regulation would be effective from midnight, Ms Lam’s justice minister said.
The announcement followed government talks to stave off escalating violence after the police shooting of an 18-year-old protester. Ms Lam was flanked at the news conference by all 16 of her cabinet ministers, the first such display since she was sworn in as chief executive in July 2017.
The Emergency Regulations Ordinance is a sweeping colonial-era law that was first drafted to quash workers’ strikes. It has not been invoked in Hong Kong since the riots of 1967.
Legal experts have warned that invoking emergency laws gives the chief executive free rein to bypass the city’s legislature and make any regulations she considers in the public interest.
On Friday, thousands of masked protesters took to the streets to march as a sign of defiance.
“After so many months the government has refused to answer our demands,” said one protester, who asked to be identified as just Chan, at a demonstration in the city’s central district.
“Police brutality is becoming more serious and the set up of an anti-mask law is to threaten us from protesting,” the 27-year-old financial industry worker told Reuters.
Amnesty International accused the Hong Kong government of “us[ing] emergency rules as a smokescreen for further tightening restrictions on protesters”.
“This is yet another attempt by the Hong Kong government to deter protesters, who have so far been undaunted by unnecessary and excessive use of force and the threat of prosecution, from exercising their rights,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, head of Amnesty International East Asia.
In a statement, the UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab said: “Political dialogue is the only way to resolve the situation in Hong Kong. While governments need to ensure the security and safety of their people, they must avoid aggravating and instead reduce tensions.”
The main Hong Kong government headquarters was closed from noon ahead of the announcement, in what appeared to be an indication that authorities expected it to be met with resistance.
On social media, a number of people shared notices from the city’s Education Bureau apparently warning schools to cancel sports matches and after-school activities for the next three days because of “uncertainty and safety concerns” around the government announcement.
There remain questions as to how easily a ban could be enforced in a city where many routinely wear masks in public to avoid germs and air pollution.
Ms Lam said the law included “exemption clauses” for those who “have legitimate need to wear masks”.
The government had been reluctant until now to invoke emergency laws because of the message it might send to the international community, not to mention investors with stakes in the global financial hub.
But with some calls from the pro-Beijing wing for a blanket general curfew, officials have been framing the measure as the lesser of two evils.
Ms Lam said foreign investment was important to the city, and that the law was needed “to restore a safe and stable environment for our citizens and enterprises”.
Bans on face coverings in certain circumstances were used “in many jurisdictions around the world”, Ms Lam told reporters. “I would also stress that, yes, we are using the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, but it does not mean that Hong Kong is in a state of emergency.
“This regulation aims to end violence and bring a return of peace. I believe this is the aim of all people in Hong Kong,” she said. “We must all say no to violence, we must work together to get Hong Kong back to normal, a place where we can call home.”
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