In a watershed moment in Hong Kong’s history, the SAR government has invoked emergency laws and announced a ban on face masks during all protests – authorised or not.

According to papers handed out to reporters at a press conference held by the Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her top ministers, violators face a prison term of one year and a fine of up to HK$25,000. And they can be charged up to a year after the date of the alleged offence.

Those who do not comply with police commands to remove their masks face could face an additional six months in prison along with a maximum HK$10,000 fine, the papers say.

However, there will be exemptions in the new law for people who were face coverings for religious, medical, or job-related reasons.

Police will be allowed to wear masks as they have identification numbers on their helmets, the government said.

The highly controversial decision comes even as opposition parties and commentators warned the government against using the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance, which gives the Chief Executive sweeping powers.

The provisions, last used by the colonial British government during the 1967 riots, gives the Chief Executive the power to authorise arrests, detentions and deportations, censor the press, change laws or enact new ones.

But Lam said for now, only that the anti-mask law would be implemented, starting on October 5, after the Executive Council on Friday met to discuss the controversial matter.

“As a responsible government we must not shy away from existing legislation… We can’t leave the situation to get worse and worse,” she said.

But she did not rule out the possibility that the emergency law would be invoked again in future.

“Of course if the situation worsens… then as a responsible government we will continue [to] have to identify other means that we could tackle the situation. But in doing so… we will be extremely cautious in making sure that whatever we do is in the overall public interest of Hong Kong”, Lam said.

She said the move is necessary as the violence has been escalating in recent days, accusing radical protesters of “spreading terror” and “wreaking havoc” on Hong Kong.

She noted that in the past, protests had been confined to one or two specific areas, but now the violence is spread throughout the city.

The CE also cited the use of petrol bombs inside MTR stations; the vandalism of not only public buildings, but private areas; mob attacks on people who hold different views; and the use by protesters of lethal weapons and corrosive acid, along with dangerous acts such as the attempted snatching of police officers’ guns; as evidence that the violence is escalating.

“We believe that the new law will create a deterrent effect against masked violent protesters and rioters, and will assist the police in its law enforcement”, Lam said, noting that virtually all the acts of violence and vandalism over the past months have been committed by people wearing masks.

However, she conceded that “we are not 100 percent sure that this single step that we have taken today, will achieve our objective… to de-escalate the situation and to end the violence.”

“I would like to emphasise that the decision to invoke the Emergency Regulations Ordinance is a difficult, but also a necessary one for public interest”, she concluded.

Lam stressed that the government is not declaring a state of emergency, “but we are indeed in an occasion of serious danger.”

She also said it is a worrying trend that larger and larger percentage of the 1,100-odd people arrested so far are students. While she said from June to August, only 25 percent of those arrested were students; that figure has risen to 38 percent since the start of the school year.

“Violence is destroying Hong Kong,” Lam said. “Young people who are our future are placed in a very dangerous position. We must do our utmost to prevent violence and prevent students from breaking the law further.”

The CE added that she believes there is a broad consensus among the people that the violence must end and order should be restored. She added that the government has struck the right balance by including exemptions in the mask ban to cater for legitimate needs to wear a mask.

The Secretary for Security, John Lee, said journalists, for example, will be covered by the exemption offered to people who wear masks for job-related purposes. He also said police will continue to be allowed to wear masks, saying they can already be “easily identified” by the identification numbers on their helmets.

However, there have been numerous complaints that many officers who are policing the protests do not wear any identification numbers that people can clearly see.

Meanwhile, Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng brushed aside concerns that the move will restrict people’s rights.

“Such restrictions would not undermine the essence of freedom of speech and freedom of expression because people could still freely and lawfully take part in peaceful public events without using any facial covering”, she said.

Asked to comment on suggestions that the invocation of this emergency law marks Hong Kong’s slide into authoritarianism, Lam said “the regulation made fully complies with the spirit and the letter in this piece of existing and valid legislation. So I don’t see how you could relate this to a step closer to authoritarianism… this is a responsible act to deal with an extremely difficult situation which I hope the world has sympathy.”

Lam also stressed that this is a piece of subsidiary legislation subject to ‘negative vetting’ by the Legislative Council – meaning lawmakers can strike down the law after they reconvene on October 16.

The beleaguered Chief Executive also stressed that she and her team will continue to seek a broad dialogue with the public, saying she believes that is still the best way to resolve deep-seated problems that have fueled the nearly four months of protests.

As she arrived at the press conference on Friday afternoon, a grim-faced Lam stood alongside her entire team of ministers all dressed in sombre black or dark suits, as photographers snapped pictures of them against a backdrop bearing a new slogan, “Treasure Hong Kong, End Violence”.

The controversial announcement comes after pro-establishment figures have been ratcheting up calls for a ban on face masks, saying this was needed to prevent unruly participants from concealing their identity.

Face masks have become a hallmark of protesters in Hong Kong, with many wary of reports that police will be using face recognition technology. As the use of tear gas became widespread, surgical face masks have given way to more heavy duty gear like full gas masks and goggles.

Face masks first became a common sight during the 2003 Sars crisis, when prevention of the respiratory disease became a priority. Government guidelines since then have advised people to wear face masks if they feel ill.

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Last updated: 2019-10-04 HKT 18:35