Two protesters charged in first use of Hong Kong’s new mask ban

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Two protesters were charged Monday with violating Hong Kong’s new ban on wearing masks at rallies, a move likely to add to a backlash that has thrown the semi-autonomous Chinese territory into deeper crisis.

An 18-year-old student and a 38-year-old unemployed woman were the first to be prosecuted under the ban, which came into force Saturday under sweeping emergency powers aimed at quashing violence in the protests for more democratic freedoms.

Detained early Saturday shortly after the ban took effect, the two were also charged with taking part in unlawful assembly, which carries a heavier penalty of up to five years in jail. A conviction under the mask ban is punishable by up to a year in prison and a fine. They were both released on bail pending trial.

Instead of deterring rioting and calming the anti-government demonstrations that have rocked the international financial hub for four months, the mask ban has led to more anger and redoubled the determination of both peaceful marchers and more radical protesters.

The protest were sparked by a proposed law that would have allowed some criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial, but have since morphed into a larger anti-government movement. Protesters are upset at what they say are Beijing’s increasing influence over the former British colony, which was promised a level of autonomy when it was handed back to Chinese rule in 1997.

Defiantly marching

Tens of thousands of masked protesters marched defiantly in the city center Sunday, but the peaceful rallies quickly degenerated into chaos at several locations as hard-liners again lobbed gasoline bombs, started fires and trashed subway stations and China-linked banks and shops. Police responded with tear gas in familiar skirmishes.

It also drew a first warning from the Chinese military after protesters pointed lasers at one of its barracks in Hong Kong. Police said rioters also attacked bystanders, including two men left unconscious after bloody beatings and a woman who took photos of rioting.

In a statement Monday, police said the “public order of the whole city is being pushed to the verge of a very dangerous situation.” The chaos has led many shops and public services to shutter and panic buying in some areas.

The city’s MTR network of subways and trains was entirely closed Saturday and partially reopened Sunday but was quickly targeted again by protesters. Most stations remained closed Monday amid fears of more protests.

A police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media said 13 people were detained Saturday for violating the ban and other offences but couldn’t say how many more were arrested Sunday.

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