Hong Kong’s anti-mask law will remain in effect for seven days at the justice department’s request, after a court suspended its earlier ruling that it was unconstitutional. The mask ban will remain in effect during the district council elections this weekend.
A day after the call for a suspension, the High Court decided it would keep the measure in place until the appeal against the court ruling, despite concerns that it could lead to jail time for some.
The Department of Justice had requested a longer suspension but it was rejected. The decision came just days after the court’s ruling drew stern remarks from Beijing, seen by critics as a move to exert pressure on Hong Kong’s independent judiciary.
The city is also gearing up for the district council elections on Sunday when police officers in riot gear will be deployed to ensure the four-yearly event will be free from disruptions. But appeals have been made online calling for people not to wear masks that day, so that pro-democracy voters can cast ballots without any issues.
The court challenge was brought against the government by 24 pro-democracy lawmakers and activist “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung in early October, shortly after Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced she would invoke a colonial-era emergency law, which gives her far-reaching power, to enact the mask ban.
On Monday, two High Court judges, Anderson Chow Ka-ming and Godfrey Lam Wan-ho, decided that the mask ban had gone beyond what was necessary to achieve the authorities’ goal to deter people from taking part in increasingly violent anti-government protests.
They also ruled as unconstitutional Lam’s use of the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, invoked on the grounds of public danger, to enact the ban, which carried a maximum jail sentence of one year and a fine of HK$25,000.
The ruling touched a nerve with Beijing. The following day, Zang Tiewei, spokesman of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, said only the Standing Committee had the power to decide whether Hong Kong laws complied with the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.
The remark prompted critics to express fears that Beijing could issue an interpretation to override the court’s ruling. Under the Basic Law, Beijing has the right to give an interpretation which is deemed as final and binding, and while accepted by the legal fraternity, is also seen as a last resort, which if used prematurely could weaken the judiciary.
Following the ruling, the Department of Justice wrote to the two judges, asking them to keep the ban and the emergency provision “valid and of legal effect” until a final verdict was reached.
On Thursday, Benjamin Yu SC, for the government, urged the court to take into consideration the immediate effect of striking down the ban, after revealing the government would file an appeal.
Hong Kong has been rocked by more than five straight months of protests, which have turned increasingly violent with radical protesters hurling petrol bombs on the streets and vandalising shops with ties to mainland China. What began as peaceful marches to oppose a now-withdrawn extradition bill have evolved into a wider anti-government campaign.