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Hong Kong demonstrators trapped at polytechnic university as court overturns mask ban

Prodemocracy demonstrators were detained by police as they tried to leave the Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus on Monday.
Prodemocracy demonstrators were detained by police as they tried to leave the Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus on Monday.Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

HONG KONG — 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 police off from entering the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, or PolyU, 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 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.

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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 miniconstitution, known as the Basic Law.

In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States was “gravely concerned” by the deepening mayhem, urging all sides to exercise restraint.

The Hong Kong protests began in June over legislation, since scrapped, that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, and have expanded to include a broad range of demands for police accountability and greater democracy.

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

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

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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 police in one of the most violent confrontations in months of conflict.

At least 500 protesters remained on campus by Monday afternoon, after 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 prodemocracy 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 OK.”

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.

Trying to mediate the stalemate, Jasper Tsang, founder of Hong Kong’s largest pro-Beijing political party, arrived at the university late Monday evening. Tsang spoke to several protesters at a lectern and said he was willing to accompany their departure from the university to help ensure their safety.

Later, dozens of protesters lined up at the designated exit and were arrested on rioting charges by police. It was not immediately clear whether they had departed because of Tsang’s mediation. Nor was it clear how many students remained on the campus.

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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 ERO.

In its ruling, the court said the ban violated 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 ERO 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.

Pompeo called for all sides in the escalating Hong Kong conflict to exercise restraint, and said the territory’s government should start an independent investigation into violent incidents that have punctuated the prodemocracy protests. Such an investigation presumably would include reviewing accusations of police misconduct.

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“The United States is gravely concerned by the deepening political unrest and violence in Hong Kong, including the standoffs between protesters and police at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and other campuses,” Pompeo told a news conference in Washington. “We have repeatedly called for restraint from all parties in Hong Kong.”

“The Hong Kong government bears primary responsibility,” he said, adding that the conflict could not be resolved by law enforcement alone.

He called for the government to “take clear steps to address public concerns,” and stressed that Lam should “promote accountability” by putting in place an independent investigation.