Human rights group condemns decision by Belgium's lower house of parliament to approve a draft law to ban wearing the full Islamic face veil in public.
LONDON, ENGLAND, UNITED KINGDOM (APRIL 30, 2010) REUTERS - Amnesty International reacted with dismay on Friday (April 30) to the decision by the Belgian lower house of parliament to approve a draft law to ban wearing the full Islamic face veil in public. The move could make Belgium the first country to make the practice a criminal offence.
The measure was overwhelmingly backed on Thursday (April 29) by 136 lawmakers with just two abstentions.
The bill, which would ban all clothing that covers or partially covers the face, could become law in the coming months as the upper house, or Senate, is not expected to block it.
John Dalhuisen, an Amnesty expert on discrimination in Europe, said they were shocked that not a single member of parliament had voted against the ban.
He said: "Amnesty International is obviously very disappointed by this vote, by the ban on the full covering of the face in Belgium. We're extremely disappointed that it was approved by such an overwhelmingly comprehensive margin, 130 odd in favour, two abstaining, and absolutely no-one against a measure that Amnesty International believes violates Belgium's obligations to respect both the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion of women who freely choose to wear full face veils, such as the burqa or the hijab, in public."
However, the collapse of the Belgian government last week and the prospect of an imminent election could cause a delay because parliament would have to be dissolved.
France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe, is also looking towards a ban on wearing veils in public, with the government set to examine a draft bill in May. It could also become law within a few months.
Dalhuisen said he fears there could be a domino effect across Europe. He said: "If you see at the moment it's far right, extreme right parties who have jumped on this bandwagon. Mainstream parties are certainly considering it as well in a number of European countries as well, so there is a real concern that there are a lot of other European countries looking at this. If this passes, if this passes without significant opposition, I think a lot of people will be tempted by it. It's in our view a very dangerous line to be going down. It's definitely very much the thin end of the wedge."
Belgium's French-speaking liberals, who proposed the veil law, argued that an inability to identify people who have hidden their faces presents a security risk and that the veil was a "walking prison" for women.
Wearing the facial veil, known as the niqab and the body-length outer garment, or burqa, widely worn in Afghanistan, could lead to lead to fines of 15-25 euros (about 20-33 U.S. dollars) and imprisonment for up to seven days.
The bill's chief promoter, Daniel Bacquelaine, said local mayors could suspend the ban during festivities such as Carnival when people traditionally wear costumes, including masks.
The law could also be used against potentially violent demonstrators who covered their faces.
Bacquelaine estimated that a few hundred women in Belgium wore facial veils and said it was a rising trend.