LCQ14: Discussions on anti-mask legislation

     Following is a question by the Hon Chan Hak-kan and a written reply by the Secretary for Security, Mr Lai Tung-kwok, in the Legislative Council today (March 29):
     Some studies have found that persons who wear masks during public assemblies and demonstrations tend to believe that as they have covered their faces, they can still evade legal liability after committing unlawful acts.  As such, they are more likely than others to commit violent acts and damage other people's property.  Also, their violent acts are of greater gravity and are targeted at more innocent people.  It is learnt that some overseas countries have enacted legislation to ban their people from wearing masks during public assemblies and demonstrations as well as in public places.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(1) among the arrestees in the occupation movement in 2014 and the riot in Mong Kok in February last year, of the respective numbers of those who were wearing masks when they allegedly committed the relevant offences; among such arrestees, the numbers of those who were eventually not prosecuted because the Police did not have sufficient evidence to prove offenders' identities;
(2) whether the Police and the relevant government departments have studied if the consideration of "being able to conceal one's own identity" will make criminals blatantly engage in more severe acts of violence; if so, of the details;
(3) given that police officers may not be able to arrest offenders on the spot during large-scale public assemblies, whether the Police have studied if the gathering of evidence afterwards has become more difficult due to the fact that those people were wearing masks when they committed the offences; and
(4) whether, following the riot in Mong Kok, the authorities have studied the enactment of legislation to ban participants of public assemblies and demonstrations from wearing masks, and have made reference to relevant overseas practices; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?
     With regard to Hon Chan Hak-kan's question, I provide below a consolidated reply:

     During the illegal "Occupy Movement" in 2014, a total of 955 persons were arrested by the Police, and another 48 persons were arrested by the Police after the incident.  Their alleged offences included unlawful assembly, arson, possession of offensive weapons, criminal damage, wounding, assaulting a police officer, common assault, possession of imitation firearms, theft, criminal intimidation, indecent assault, possession of dangerous drugs and possession of Part I poisons, etc.  As at March 27, 2017, a total of 225 persons have been or are being dealt with by legal proceedings, of which 123 are subject to legal consequences. The Police do not maintain the number of arrestees above who were wearing masks or covering their faces with objects when they allegedly committed the relevant offences.

     The Department of Justice makes prosecution decisions in accordance with the principles set out in the Prosecution Code.  Unless there is sufficient admissible evidence so that the case has a reasonable prospect of conviction, and that it is in the public interest to prosecute, no prosecution should be commenced.  The decision of whether to prosecute or not is based on various considerations.  The Police do not maintain the individual considerations or circumstances for the cases above in which the arrestees were ultimately not charged.

     Police officers are conferred with power by existing legislation to inspect the proof of identity of the public and verify the identity of suspicious persons and arrestees.  According to Section 54 of the Police Force Ordinance (Cap. 232), if a police officer finds any person in any street or public place acting in a suspicious manner, he is empowered to stop the person for the purpose of demanding that he produces proof of his identity for inspection.  If the person is wearing a mask, the police officer may also ask him to take it off for the purpose of verifying his identity.  When a suspicious person is arrested, the police officer may ask him to take off his mask for the purpose of identifying his identity. 

     If people engaged in unlawful activities do not wear masks or have their faces covered with objects, it will doubtlessly make them more easily identifiable, and may make it easier for the police to conduct investigation and gather evidence.  Nevertheless, the wearing of a mask while committing an offence does not mean that one can completely evade the investigation of the police.  For instance, nine persons have been convicted for their unlawful acts in the Mong Kok riot as at March 27 this year.  Among those, seven persons were wearing masks when committing the relevant offences, and three of them were found guilty of the offence of riot by the court and each sentenced to three years' imprisonment.  This shows that nobody should take that they could evade the legal consequences by wearing a mask when engaging in unlawful acts. 

     The Government have been paying close attention to the discussions of all sectors on anti-mask legislation, and note that there are both positive and negative views in the community.  Those in support of legislation consider that anti-mask legislation can deter people from engaging in illegal acts with their faces covered; and in the case of demonstrations or occasions to express one's opinions, whilst the persons concerned hope their views to be heard, their identities ought to be known by others to exhibit their fearlessness and willingness to accept responsibility, including the responsibility for these opinions and the legal consequences of committing an offence.  On the other hand, those opposing legislation hold that people should be free to decide whether to cover their faces; and that the prohibition of protestors or those who express their opinions from doing so will only make them more hostile to law enforcement, segregate the society and would not help to curb violent acts.

     For the Government to enact any new legislation or amend existing legislation, it must prudently look into and carefully consider the various potential impacts that the law may bring.  We note that some countries in Europe and America have enacted similar legislation.  We are now exploring the issue, including the specific provisions of relevant law overseas, their legislative background, scope of regulation, accepted exceptions, previous decided cases, verdicts and sentencing, and how they strike a balance between the legislative intent and issues like personal privacy and other rights.  As the issues involved are complex with far-reaching impact, the exploration is still ongoing.  We will continue to listen to the views of various sectors of the community on this matter.

Ends/Wednesday, March 29, 2017
Issued at HKT 16:05