HONG KONG – A Hong Kong court that had struck down a ban on face masks at protests said Friday that the government could enforce it for one week, as police readied for any unrest during keenly contested elections this weekend.
The High Court granted the temporary suspension “in view of the great public importance of the issues raised in this case, and the highly exceptional circumstances that Hong Kong is currently facing.”
Anti-government protests have rocked the semi-autonomous Chinese city for more than five months. Protesters remained holed up on a university campus, refusing to turn themselves in for arrest after intense clashes with police last weekend.
The court had ruled Monday that the ban, imposed last month under rarely used emergency powers to prevent protesters from hiding their identity, infringed on fundamental rights more than was reasonably necessary.
China’s parliament rebuked the court ruling this week, in what some interpreted as an indication it might overrule the decision.
In granting the one-week reprieve, the High Court said it was giving the government time to appeal the decision and seek a longer suspension from the Court of Appeal.
Many protesters have defied the ban, and 632 people have been arrested under the regulation, of which 61 have been charged, the court’s latest ruling said.
During lunchtime rallies Friday, some protesters chanted “We have the right to wear masks.”
Anti-government rallies were held sporadically in the past two days. Riot police broke up minor scuffles between protesters and pro-Beijing supporters at a downtown bridge Friday, but there were no major clashes ahead of Sunday’s district council elections.
The city’s new police commissioner, Tang Ping-keung, told reporters police would be out in force at polling stations Sunday to respond to any outbreak of violence “without hesitation.”
City leaders have said they want to go ahead with the vote, seen as a bellwether of public support for the protests, but warned violence could make it impossible to hold a fair and safe election.
Asked if the police presence would make voters feel uncomfortable, Tang said it will make citizens “feel safe to go out and vote.”
Six masked protesters surrendered before dawn Friday, bringing to about 30 the number that have come out in the past day from a university campus surrounded by police.
The group emerged from a campus entrance and held hands as they walked toward a checkpoint around 3 a.m. Five wore the black clothing favored by the protest movement and the other was in a blue checked shirt.
Most of the protesters who took over Hong Kong Polytechnic University last week have left, but an unknown number have remained inside for days, hoping somehow to avoid arrest.
Tang Chun-Keung, head of the Hong Kong Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools, said the holdouts include minors, numbering less than 10, and they are emotionally unstable. Tang entered the campus Friday with some others but failed to find them.
“We have lawyers and social workers ready to provide assistance and we hope to persuade them to leave the campus. We are worried our work is getting more and more difficult because students are refusing to meet us,” he told reporters.
Police Commissioner Tang reiterated that those under 18 can leave, although they may face charges later, and pledged impartial treatment for all adults facing arrest.
“The condition is deteriorating and dangerous, there are many explosives and petrol bombs inside ... we hope to end the matter peacefully,” he said, adding police haven’t set any deadline to end the siege.
The anti-government protesters battled with police and blocked the nearby approach to a major road tunnel, which remains closed. It was the latest bout in more than five months of unrest. Protesters are demanding fully democratic elections and an investigation into alleged police brutality in suppressing the demonstrations.