French court hands down first 'burka ban' fines

Two Muslim women fined for wearing veils in public, pledge to appeal ruling; violators of law liable to fine of up to 150 euros, citizenship lessons.

By REUTERS
September 22, 2011 17:48
2 minute read.
[illustrative photo]

Arab Muslim veiled hijab nikab niqab mask 311 (R). (photo credit: Ali Jarekji / Reuters)

 
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MEAUX, France - A French court fined two Muslim women on Thursday for wearing full-face veils in public, the first time a judge has imposed punishment under a "burka ban" law that has become a legal and cultural battleground across Europe.

One of the women pledged immediately to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to overturn the ban, which President Nicolas Sarkozy says protects women and guarantees equality but opponents argue violates human rights and panders to xenophobia.

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Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia John Dalhuisen responded to the fines, saying that “This is a travesty of justice and a day of shame for France. These women are being punished for wearing what they want.”

“For security purposes, complete public bans on face-coverings are unnecessary and discriminatory,” said John Dalhuisen.

“For the protection of women, the state has measures at its disposal which are far more appropriate than a ban which confines women who choose to wear the full face veil to their homes.”

Only a tiny percentage of French Muslim women wear full-face veils. But the law, which took effect in April, has become a focus of debate in mainly-secular Europe, where right-wing parties hostile to Muslim immigration are gaining support.



The Strasbourg-based European court can consider whether to overturn the French law now that a French court has enforced it. A ruling in Strasbourg could have an impact in other EU countries which are considering similar laws.

A second woman, Najate Naitali, was fined 80 euros in absentia by the court in the town of Meaux, northeast of Paris.

Ahmas said she would also appeal her sentence in a French court with the backing of French businessman Rachid Nekkaz who has pledged to pay all fines imposed under the ban.

The two women had turned up at Meaux town hall in May wearing veils to offer a birthday cake to Mayor Jean-Francois Cope, who is head of Sarkozy's conservative UMP party and helped push the ban through parliament.

In the five months since the ban came into force, several women were asked by police officers to remove veils and one paid a fine issued on the spot, but no court had enforced the law.

The ban, first of its kind in Europe, makes public wearing of the Arabic-style niqab - which leaves the eyes uncovered - and Afghan-style burka - which conceals the face behind a cloth mesh - liable to a fine of up to 150 euros or lessons in French citizenship.

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