HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s High Court ruled on Monday that a British colonial-era emergency law revived by the government to ban protesters wearing face masks was unconstitutional.

It said the law was “incompatible with the Basic Law”, the mini-constitution under which Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

The protesters made gains on a legal front when the high court struck down a ban on face masks imposed by the government last month. The court said it did not consider anti-mask laws unconstitutional in general, but in this case, the law infringed on fundamental rights further than was reasonably necessary.

Many protesters wear masks to shield their identities from surveillance cameras that could be used to arrest and prosecute them. The ban has been widely ignored, and police have brought charges against protesters wearing masks.

Meanwhile, police tightened their siege of a university campus where hundreds of protesters remained trapped on Monday night in the latest dramatic episode in months of protests against growing Chinese control over the semi-autonomous city.

The pitched battle for control of the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University has been the focus of the latest protests as demonstrators for days fortified the campus to keep the police out. Now cornered by security forces determined to arrest them, they desperately tried to get out but faced a cordon of officers armed with tear gas and water cannons.

Senior government officials said they were trying to de-escalate the situation and urged the protesters to peacefully leave the campus and cooperate with police advice that seemed certain to lead to arrests and therefore strengthened the protesters resolve to resist.

Officers repelled one escape attempt with tear gas, driving hundreds of protesters back onto the campus. Later, huge crowds of supporters advanced on foot toward the police from outside the cordon to try to disrupt the police operation.

Some protesters descen­ded by ropes from a footbridge to a road below, where they were met by motorbike riders trying to help them flee as police fired tear gas. It was unclear whether they got away safely.

Throughout the day, multiple protests disrupted traffic in the Asian financial center, where schools remained closed because of safety concerns stemming from the demonstrations, which began in June but have become increasingly violent in recent weeks.

Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2019