Hong Kong's ban on wearing masks at public gatherings, passed last month using controversial, colonial era emergency powers, has been struck down by the High Court.
In a judgment handed down Monday morning, as violent clashes continued around the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the court ruled in favor of a group of pro-democracy legislators who had challenged the constitutionality of the law.
The Emergency Regulations Ordinance (ERO), which had not been used for more than half a century, gives the city's chief executive power to bypass the legislature to "make any regulations whatsoever which he (or she) may consider desirable in the public interest."
While it did not strike down the ERO, the court nevertheless said it was "incompatible with the Basic Law," the city's de facto constitution, "insofar as it empowers the (chief executive) to make regulations on any occasion of public danger."
The ERO must be read in conjunction with the Hong Kong Bill of Rights, and measures adopted under it must comply with those protected by the latter law, the court said.
"We leave open the question of the constitutionality of the ERO insofar as it relates to any occasion of emergency," the court said.
Some context: Under the mask ban, police officers were empowered "to stop any person in any public place who is using a facial covering and to require that person to remove it so that his or her identity may be verified, if the officer reasonably believes the facial covering is likely to prevent identification." People who failed to remove masks or face coverings could face a fine of up to $1,200 and/or imprisonment for up to 6 months.
This provision "represents a more serious inroad into protected rights than is reasonably necessary, and therefore fails the proportionality test," the court ruled.
Other provisions of the mask law also went "further than is reasonably necessary for the furtherance of those objects."