Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal ruled on Monday in favor of the special administrative region's government for bringing into force an anti-mask law in early October 2019 to rein in the rampant street violence at the time.
In an about 20,000-word written judgment, the five-judge panel ruled that Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had been legitimate in introducing the law in light of the "public danger" of prolonged violence and unlawfulness at that time and the prohibitions in the law were proportionate and therefore lawful restrictions of protected rights.
The judges stressed that the Prohibition on Face Covering Regulations, introduced on Oct 4, 2019, had been a fitting response by the government as "unchallenged evidence paints a bleak picture of the degeneration of law and order in Hong Kong" and the ever-increasing violence and lawlessness, almost on a daily basis, that was becoming common on the streets of Hong Kong at the time.
"Members of the public were fearful of going out, and there was significant inconvenience caused to the public at large by the blockage of roads and closure of public transport facilities," said the judgment.
The wearing of facial coverings had an emboldening effect on protesters and their supporters and individuals were abusing "their anonymity by acting with a sense of impunity and an ability to evade police investigation", the court noted in its judgment.
These showed that the law was made to address an ongoing situation of violence and unlawfulness existing over a period of months. And this led the chief executive to conclude that there was an occasion of public danger under the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, according to the judgment.
On Oct 4, 2019, the government, citing the ordinance, prohibited the wearing of masks and other facial coverings at certain public gatherings after the city had been rocked by monthslong incessant street violence instigated by black-clad, masked radicals.
The court agreed that the prohibitions were proportionate and struck a fair balance between the rights of individuals and the societal benefits of the encroachment upon those rights, as no rights are absolute.
"The interests of Hong Kong as a whole should be taken into account since the rule of law itself was being undermined by the actions of masked lawbreakers who, with their identities concealed, were seemingly free to act with impunity," the judgment said.
The SAR government and lawmakers welcomed Monday's ruling by the top court, saying that the decision to introduce the law was legitimate and reasonable as society had been plunged into chaos during the social unrest.
The Hong Kong government fully echoed the views that the interests of Hong Kong as a whole should be taken into account when striking a fair balance between societal and individual interests.
Elizabeth Quat Pui-fan, a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, said the anti-mask law was vital to social safety as it stopped lawbreakers from hiding their identity, which was an obstacle to law enforcement and social justice.
Fellow Legislative Council member Holden Chow Ho-ding said the anti-mask law was enacted for the interests of society as a whole. The court's decision sent a clear message that the freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law may not be abused and must be restricted to prevent violence and harm to others.