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HK protesters in court after a week of bloody clashes

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HK protesters setting up a barricade in Mong Kok district on Oct 7, 2019, after a violent and disruptive weekend of unrest.

Hong Kong

HONG KONG pro-democracy protesters arrested for defying a new face-mask ban appeared in court on Monday, following a weekend of unrest during which bloody clashes with police and widespread vandalism crippled the city's train network.

The international finance hub convulsed with three straight days of rallies and riots after its pro-Beijing leader invoked colonial-era emergency powers to ban face coverings at protests.

Activists called for protests across Hong Kong to start again on Monday at 8 pm, but they failed to gain significant traction.

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Riot police were on standby in parts of the city despite the sparse groups of black-shirted demonstrators milling around areas including the central Causeway Bay shopping district, a focal point for the violence, where some shops had pulled their shutters down early.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who has record-low approval ratings, said the measure was needed to try and quash four months of huge and increasingly violent pro-democracy rallies. But the ban did little to halt the chaos or stop huge crowds of masked protesters from hitting the streets in defiance as opponents decried the move as a slide towards authoritarianism.

On Monday morning, a male university student and a 38-year-old woman were the first people to be charged with illegally wearing masks as supporters packed the courtroom, many wearing face coverings.

They were both charged with unlawful assembly, which carries up to three years jail time, and with defying the mask ban, which has a maximum one-year sentence. Both were released on bail. Outside the court, demonstrators queued to get in, some chanting slogans such as, "Wearing a face mask isn't a crime" and "The law is unjust".

Many said they feared the mask ban was just the first of more emergency orders to come. "It's an excuse to just introduce other totalitarian laws, next is martial law," one protester outside the court, who gave his surname Lo, told AFP.

In a radio interview, a government Cabinet member suggested Internet curbs could be introduced, a move which would have profound repercussions for the city. "At this stage, the government will consider all legal means to stop the riots," Executive Council member Ip Kwok-him told Commercial Radio. "We would not rule out a ban on the Internet." Protesters use online forums and encrypted messaging apps to mobilise and organise.

On the mainland, Beijing flexed its muscles by pulling a top US basketball team's games from state broadcaster CCTV after its manager posted a tweet featuring the message: "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong".

The Houston Rockets tried to calm waters, issuing apologies from players and the manager. Hong Kong has been battered by 18 consecutive weekends of unrest, fanned by widespread public anger over Chinese rule and the police response to protests.

The rallies were ignited by a now-scrapped plan to allow extraditions to the mainland, which fuelled fears of an erosion of liberties promised under the 50-year "one country, two systems" model China agreed to ahead of the 1997 handover by Britain.

After Beijing and local leaders took a hard stance, the demonstrations snowballed into a wider movement calling for more democratic freedoms and police accountability. Ms Lam has refused major concessions, but struggled to come up with any political solution. AFP, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG