UK Lawyers Meddle in French Burqa Affair

The UK civil rights organisation Liberty– invoking ‘freedom of religion and freedom of expression’ —  has intervened in a burqa case pending before the European Court of Human Rights in a move likely to exasperate French lawmakers.

Burqa seller

Burqa seller (Photo credit: imtfi)

Liberty legal officer Corinna Ferguson told a British legal website “Wearing the full veil may be considered demeaning by some but for some women it’s a precious symbol of their faith.”

France, whose intelligence services have long referred to the UK capital as “Londinistan” for obvious reasons, banned the use of the burqa in public places in 2011. The move was widely welcomed by parliamentarians, political parties and women’s rights movements although initially it was hotly contested by the affected minorities.

The relevant legislation Loi 2010-1192 was enacted on 11 April 2011 and makes it a criminal offence to wear face coverings in the public realm  — streets, public buildings and shops or restaurants. Offenders may be given an on-the-spot fine of €150 and be ordered to take a citizenship course. The law further criminalises behaviour forcing women to cover their faces, such as “threat, violence, pressure, abuse of authority or power” and makes it an offence punishable by one year in prison and a €30,000 fine.

The provision was passed (by 246 votes to one in the upper house) after a debate in which veiling was variously described as segregation, oppression and contrary to French practise and tradition.

As the provisions came into force defiant hard-line activists threatened to flout the  law banning ‘concealment of the face in a public space’  phrasing regarded by opponents as shorthand for a clampdown on the use of the niqab and the burqa by Muslim women.

So far only one case appears to have reached the European Court of Human Rights and it, for reasons unexplained, is been led by a British lawyer, Birmingham-based solicitor Sanjeev Sharma, on behalf of a 22-year-old French national resident in France and known only as SAS.

According to a legal website the French government appears to have missed a deadline to file a response to the case filed on the day the ban came into operation in 2011.

The case is pending before the European Court of Human Rights which issued an official ‘statement of facts’ to the parties, including the French government, on February 1st 2012 with a request to respond within 16 weeks: Case S.A.S. v.France(43835/11) Muslim woman wearing niqab forbidden to cover her face in areas open to public and banned from public facilities : communicated

The plaintiff’s  application to the ECHR was made, according to the Strasbourg court, on the grounds that “the criminalization of  the covering of her face when she is in areas open to public, is a violation of her right to privacy (art.8), her freedom of religion (art.9), her freedom of expression (art.10) and her freedom to peaceful assembly (art.11). In addition the ban from public facilities, the refusal of service and the risk of  being fined are degrading treatments in violation of article 3. She further stated that these discriminatory policies were also in violation of article 14 of the Convention.”

Liberty legal officer Corinna Ferguson is quoted as saying: ” (The) controversy (over the ban) is hardly resolved by imprisoning at home those women who feel compelled to wear the burqa or niqab. This blanket, discriminatory ban only serves to fuel the flames of Islamophobia spreading across Europe.”

Below is a CBS news clip of the arrest of two burqa-bearing protestors in Paris shortly after the ban came into force.

The complaint as filed 11 April 2011 at the ECHR is here (in French)

Story: Ken Pottinger

UPDATE: The UK’s Daily Mail reports that three women on flight from Doha were barred from entering France after refusing to remove their face veils.

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