French veil ban to come before Europe rights court

STRASBOURG (AFP) - European judges will on Wednesday hear the case of a 23-year-old French woman who claims the country's highly contentious ban on full-face veils violates her rights.

The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) will hear arguments in the case brought by a plaintiff known only by her initials SAS, with a ruling expected in early 2014.

The law, introduced in 2010, bans the wearing of full-face veils like the burqa and niqab, with offenders facing fines of up to 150 euros (S$188).

French authorities say the law is needed to protect the country's secular traditions and for security reasons.

But the ban has increased tensions with France's Muslim community, which at an estimated four million is western Europe's largest Muslim minority.

Those tensions have occasionally erupted into violence, including riots in the Paris suburb of Trappes this summer after a man was arrested for allegedly attacking a police officer who stopped his wife over wearing a veil.

In written arguments presented to the court, the plaintiff says she is a "devout Muslim and she wears the burqa and niqab in accordance with her religious faith, culture and personal convictions". It claims the ban violates her rights to freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and a prohibition against discrimination.

Attempting to counter a frequent argument in favour of the ban, she also emphasised "that neither her husband nor any other member of her family puts pressure on her to dress in this manner". The plaintiff will not be in court herself and will be represented by a law firm based in the British city of Birmingham specialising in immigration and human rights.

"First of all we would like the court to admit that this French law is discriminatory," her lawyer Sanjeev Sharma told AFP.

He said the plaintiff had family in Birmingham and did not "feel comfortable" using a French lawyer.

"The need to be anonymous and remain so is vital in her bringing this case, as you could understand, and she could not risk therefore using anyone in France."

The plaintiff says she is willing to remove her veil when required to do so for security reasons but "wishes to be able to wear it when she chooses to do so.

"Her aim is not to annoy others but to feel at inner peace with herself," her statement said.

Lawyers for France are to argue for her complaint to be dropped outright, noting that the court has rejected two other complaints on the same subject that were prepared by the same law firm and used the same basic arguments.

In its written arguments, France said the ban is based on "the legitimate goals it pursues, including public security" and that full-face veils are "intrinsically discriminatory against women".

The French veil ban was introduced under former president Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right government but has been fully backed by President Francois Hollande's ruling Socialists.

After the riots in Trappes, Interior Minister Manuel Valls said the ban was "a law against practices that have nothing to do with our traditions and our values".

Belgium and some parts of Switzerland have followed France's lead in banning full-face veils, while similar bans are being considered in Italy and The Netherlands.

Some British politicians called for veil bans in public buildings in September after a judge ruled that a Muslim woman would be allowed to wear a veil in court but would have to take it off while giving evidence at her trial.