(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong’s government can only enforce its controversial ban on masks at unauthorized public gatherings, its court of appeal ruled, a judgment linked to protests that engulfed the city in 2019 rather than the current widespread use of facial coverings because of the coronavirus.
Banning masks at authorized assemblies violates Hong Kong citizens’ rights, the court ruled in a case that began late last year when the former British colony was still battered by regular anti-government protests.
The court handed its verdict down Thursday, saying that although the government was within its rights to use the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance to ban the use of face masks during protests, parts of the order were unconstitutional. The judges also said the ERO could be used in other cases of public danger.
The mask ban “directly interferes with these participants’ right of privacy or freedom of expression while taking part in perfectly lawful activities in the exercise of their right of peaceful assembly,” the judges wrote.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam instituted the unprecedented mask ban in October by invoking the emergency law for the first time in decades, following months of violent demonstrations that saw thousands of people take to the streets in masks to conceal their identities. The sweeping ERO used to institute the mask ban was seen as a key tool for her to manage the protest movement.
But it’s unclear whether the ruling will have any practical effect in Hong Kong, where protests have become rare, gatherings of more than four people are now illegal in a bid to stem the coronavirus and the vast majority of residents are wearing masks to protect themselves from the Covid-19 pandemic.
In December, the Court of Appeal rejected the government’s request to temporarily extend the mask ban, despite China’s criticism of a lower court decision declaring the measure unconstitutional the month before.
A lower court voided the mask measure on Nov. 18, saying it “exceeds what is reasonably necessary to achieve the aim of law enforcement, investigation and prosecution of violent protesters.”
Countries Learn to Love Face Masks in Struggle to Contain Virus
The decision comes as Lam battles to contain a second wave of virus cases fueled by residents returning to Hong Kong from abroad. On Wednesday, she announced a fresh stimulus package worth some HK$137.5 billion ($17.7 billion) to bolster the Asian financial hub’s deteriorating economy, which has now been battered by both the virus and protest movement.
There is also a global debate over whether masks can help contain the spread of the disease, with more countries requiring citizens to cover their faces in public.
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