HONG KONG -- In a rare win for anti-government protesters amid an escalating police crackdown in Hong Kong, high court judges ruled on Monday that a law banning people from covering their faces during protests was unconstitutional.
A month after the city's government invoked sweeping emergency powers to tame escalating violence by radical protesters, the judges said the "restrictions [that the anti-mask law] imposed on fundamental rights go further than is reasonably necessary for the furtherance of the objective." But, they added that they were convinced of the legitimate intentions of the law.
A police spokesperson said at a daily news conference later Monday that the force will stop enforcing the anti-mask law, but added that it had been helpful for officers' operations.
The court also ruled that the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, a colonial era law under which the mask ban was implemented, was "incompatible" with the Basic Law, the city's mini-constitution. The judges said it gave the chief executive sweeping powers to make regulations on any occasion of public danger.
The ruling came amid an intense standoff between protesters and police near a local university campus. Police blocked all exits from the site, laying siege to hundreds of hard-line demonstrators who had been hiding inside the school grounds.
The government invoked the emergency ordinance on Oct. 5 -- the first time it had been used since 1967 -- implementing the anti-mask law on the same day.
However, people have been defying the ban, continuing to wear masks during assemblies -- most of which were not approved by police. A senior government adviser told the Nikkei Asian Review earlier this month that the law had "significantly" reduced the number of protesters.
Dennis Kwok, a lawyer and legislative councilor in the opposition Civic Party, said the significance of the ruling is that it "reaffirmed the separation of powers" in Hong Kong, but he added that the government might also file an appeal against the decision.
About 307 people had been arrested for violating the anti-mask law as of Oct. 31, according to the police. A total of 4,491 people have been arrested since the protests begun in June.
A group of pan-democratic lawmakers filed the legal challenges to the law last month on the grounds that they would hinder people's political rights in Hong Kong.