Using the legal system to restrict the right of people to protest is a step no government should take lightly. But the banning of protesters from Immigration Tower in April last year can be said to have had some justification. Emotions were running high at the time as the right-of-abode affair reached its climax. Many unsuccessful applicants were being forced to return to the mainland and some became desperate. There were attempted suicides and frequent protests, some leading to clashes with the police. Staff at Immigration Tower had good reason to be concerned about the demonstrations there as the horrific arson attack at the building in 2000, which killed two people, was still fresh in their memory. At such a time, the government may be forgiven for resorting to court action and obtaining a temporary injunction. But that was 17 months ago. The considerations that might have warranted this exceptional approach at the time do not exist now. It is therefore surprising to discover that this 'temporary' ban is still in place. The government, however, is not even content with that. It wants the three protesters concerned to agree to a permanent restriction that would, perhaps forever, prevent them from protesting inside the building. The heavy-handed way in which this has been approached once again calls into question the government's commitment to basic rights and the rule of law. It has offered the protesters a deal. A letter sent to them by the Department of Justice suggests the matter may be settled by their each paying $10,000 towards costs incurred and agreeing to the permanent ban. But this is not all. The letter points out that the demonstrations concerned caused a great deal of trouble and expense to the Immigration Department, including legal costs of around $150,000. It does not say what action will be taken by the government should the protesters reject the proposal. But it is hardly surprising if they have interpreted it as a veiled threat - agree to this or you might be pursued for hefty compensation payments you cannot afford. Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie has suggested the proposal is intended to provide a fair way of resolving the issue. But there are other ways of viewing it. The three pro-democracy activists are being encouraged to agree to an unqualified restriction on their constitutionally guaranteed right to protest. In return, the government will not hound them for money. That may not be the intention, but it looks like an officially sanctioned form of blackmail. There are also wider implications. While this may not be the intention, the proposal looks very much like an attempt to suppress peaceful protest - a shot across the bows of activists who may be thinking of attending National Day demonstrations on October 1. And this at a time when officials are making every effort to underline their willingness to listen to the people. The government must understand that the freedom to protest is safeguarded by the Basic Law and applies equally to everyone. Hong Kong's familiar band of habitual protesters might make a nuisance of themselves at times. But they have as much right to protest as the half million who marched on July 1 and won praise for their conduct from senior officials. If protesters break the law, or pose a risk to public order, the police can arrest and prosecute them. These powers, too, should be exercised equally. The peaceful demonstrations in July have been held out by the government as an example that rights and freedoms are highly respected here in Hong Kong. The bid to prevent the activists from future protests in Immigration Tower undermines that claim. The injunction should be lifted, without cost to the protesters or restrictions on their rights.