Mask law crippled if courts don't act

Editorial | Mary Ma 8 Oct 2019

If someone insists that the situation with unrest in Hong Kong has improved, as reportedly claimed during a court hearing on a legal challenge against Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's ban on the wearing of masks, that observation must have been made with the help of lenses that were - to put it mildly - out of focus.

For it actually flies in the face of what is happening in the streets.

While the administration has to be blamed for being politically insensitive when it stoked fears of the communist system by introducing the extradition bill, the judiciary should be held responsible for being slow in handling riot cases put forward by the prosecution.

During the 2011 Tottenham riots, some British courts stayed open 24 hours a day to fast-track those cases involving people held for looting and disorder-related offenses.

Should our judiciary follow suit in attempting to deliver justice in a fair and timely fashion?

Since Lam's declaration that the wearing of masks during protests was unlawful, thousands have flouted the regulation she ordered on the basis of an antiquated emergency law dating back to the early years of the colonial era.

Yesterday, a man and a woman were brought before the court to face charges that include violating the mask ban - the first mask cases since the ban was announced without an official warning on Friday for enforcement immediately past the stroke of midnight.

After a short hearing at the Eastern Magistrates' Courts, the trial was put off until November 18, with the suspects, aged 18 and 38, released on bail.

It's most likely that the police have turned over to Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah cases the force thinks are the most straightforward in the hope of setting an immediate legal precedent.

Critics had warned that the ban would provoke further anger and violence. In hindsight, they were, for the most part, correct.

Protesters cover their faces because they did not wish to be identified to avoid official retaliation and make prosecution difficult. The anti-mask regulation was meant to take that secure feeling away to create a deterrent effect so that fewer people, fearing that they would be identified, would turn out in the streets in protest.

It's obvious that this scenario is not happening.

First, the ban has failed to achieve a deterrent effect partly because those demonstrating for the past few days were prepared for consequences that were a lot heavier than the penalty for wearing masks.

Second, it is questionable whether the judiciary was able or ready to process in a timely manner the large number of cases any strict enforcement of the regulation would have involved.

The opposition has tried twice but failed to persuade the courts to grant a temporary injunction against the ban until a formal review. The judiciary seems to be determined not to submit to political influence.

The vicious circle of violence fueled by perceived injustices and challenges that we as a community have found ourselves in chimes in with an intervening warning voiced by ex-governor Chris Patten that the mask ban may make it only a matter of time before someone gets shot and dies.

When asked last week if the ban was a sign Beijing was a step closer to intervening militarily, Lam was no longer as categorical in rejecting the probability as she did previously during a gathering that was supposedly for the ears of only those who were present.

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