Hong Kong Protests: Demonstrators Trapped at Polytechnic University as Court Overturns Mask Ban

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Police officers on Monday cornered hundreds of student protesters who occupied a Hong Kong university, offering the demonstrators one way out: drop your weapons and surrender or be met with a hail of tear gas and rubber bullets.

For days, the protesters have held the police off from entering the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, fortifying their holdout with homemade fire bombs, giant sling shots, bricks and bows and arrows.

At least 38 people were injured in a protracted battle at the university on Sunday, the city’s Hospital Authority said, after a bloody battle in which a police officer was struck by an arrow and demonstrators set a police van on fire.

As other protests raged across the city, Hong Kong’s High Court on Monday struck down a contentious ban on the wearing of face masks in public. The court found that the ban, enacted in October, violated the territory’s mini-constitution, know as the Basic Law.

Running out of weapons and supplies, protesters at PolyU on Monday sought to flee the campus, only to find all of their routes blocked by a cordon of heavily armed riot police officers and a hailstorm of tear gas and rubber bullets.

The students on Monday afternoon tried unsuccessfully to rush a police cordon only to be pushed back into the campus. Despite running out of options, the students fear that following police instructions to “drop their weapons” and leave through one designated exit will result in their arrest.

The protesters, many of them university and high school students, have occupied the campus for a week. On Sunday night and well into Monday morning they clashed with the police in one of the most violent confrontations in months of conflict.

At least 500 protesters remained on campus by Monday afternoon, after the police tried to enter the campus that morning but were pushed back.

By nightfall, about 100 people staged a sit-in directly in front of the police cordon near the university, including women who appeared to be mothers of trapped protesters sobbing and being comforted by others.

“Most of the people here are parents,” said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker who joined the rally. “They realize once their children get out they will be immediately arrested. They just want to take a look at their kid and see if he or she is O.K.”

Conditions on the campus have grown increasingly desperate with injured protesters unable to receive treatment, Owan Li, a student council member, told reporters. Student leaders said protesters suffered eye injuries and hypothermia after being struck by a stinging dye shot from a police water cannon.

Areas near the university had the feel of a battle zone, with streets engulfed by tear gas and fires.

Scores were arrested by the police on Monday morning near the university. A large group of people were seen seated outside a hotel in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Kowloon, their hands zip-tied behind their backs.

It was unclear if the bulk of the arrestees were protesters trying to flee the campus or allies responding to calls for help evacuating protesters.

The police said that they arranged for Red Cross volunteers to enter the campus in the afternoon and provide first aid to the injured, and that the force would assist those who needed to go to the hospital “before further investigation,” implying that arrests would wait until after their treatments.

Fernando Cheung, a pro-democracy lawmaker who was in touch with social workers, said that some of the young people trapped inside were “close to breaking down.”

The police said 154 people were arrested over the weekend, bringing the total number of arrests to 4,491 since the protests started in June.

The city’s High Court on Monday struck down a ban on wearing face masks in public, issuing a blow to the local government’s ability to characterize the ongoing protests as a situation that requires the invocation of emergency powers.

The ban, which was enacted in October, quickly inflamed tensions in the city and set off a series of violent clashes. The city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, imposed the ban without seeking legislative approval by invoking powers granted under the rarely used Emergency Regulations Ordinance, or E.R.O.

In its ruling, the court said the ban violated the city’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, because it was too vague and endangered the ability of the Legislative Council, or LegCo, to make the territory’s laws.

“The E.R.O. is so wide in its scope, the conferment of powers so complete, its conditions for invocation so uncertain and subjective, the regulations made thereunder invested with such primacy, and the control by the LegCo so precarious, that we believe it is not compatible with the constitutional order laid down by the Basic Law,” the court said in its ruling.

Masks have been worn by protesters since the early days of the movement, as a way for protesters to conceal their identities and protect themselves from the pepper spray and tear gas routinely deployed by the police. Many protesters saw the law a pretext that would allow officers to arrest nonviolent demonstrators in order to discourage people from joining the street actions.

“The judgment affirms the importance of separation of powers and fundamental freedoms under our constitutional order,” said Simon Young, a professor at the University of Hong Kong Law School.

Austin Ramzy and Tiffany May contributed reporting.

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