GENEVA (AFP) - Voters in Switzerland's Italian-speaking region on Sunday slapped a ban on full-face coverings in public places.
Echoing bans in France and Belgium, the measure does not single out the full-face veil worn by some Muslims. Nevertheless, the move was condemned by the country's Muslim community and Amnesty International.
Results from a referendum in the southern canton of Ticino showed that 65 per cent of the electorate backed a proposal to forbid the covering of faces in public areas by any group.
It states that "no-one may mask or hide their face on the public highway, nor in places open to the public, except places of worship, nor those offering a public service".
It also adds that "no-one may require another person to cover their face for reasons of gender".
The measure was the brainchild of right-wing Ticino populist party "Il Guastafeste" - whose kingpin Giorgio Ghiringhelli makes no secret of his criticism of Islam.
"This is an historic vote for Ticino," he told Switzerland's Italian-language broadcaster RSI.
"And not just for Ticino, but also for Switzerland and abroad, where the Ticino example could spread."
It is the first time that any of Switzerland's 26 cantons - the equivalent of US states - has imposed such a ban.
It will be anchored in Ticino's constitution, making it tough to overturn, and local lawmakers will now have to craft legislation to implement it and impose penalties on those who fail to respect it.
Reacting to Sunday's results, Switzerland's Central Islamic Council slammed the vote as "yet another loud expression of social Islamophobia".
"We in the Council see this as part of a string of attempts to make life increasingly difficult for Muslims in Switzerland and to ban symbols of Islam from the public arena," it said in a statement.
"It restricts the fundamental constitutional rights of Muslim women without any pressing need or national legal basis."
This is despite the views of other Muslim experts that the full-face covering is not obligatory for Muslims and is a way of dressing that has cultural roots that predate the religion.
Leading human rights group Amnesty International also condemned the vote.
"Fear, and the creation of a problem where there isn't one, have beaten reason and respect, to the detriment of the basic rights of the entire population," the head of Amnesty's Swiss section, Ms Manon Schick, said in a statement.
She added that she hoped the Swiss parliament would speak out, given that the right to religious freedom is inscribed in the country's constitution.
Referenda are the bedrock of Switzerland's system of direct democracy, with citizen-campaigners able to force votes if they collect enough signatures from voters.
With 350,000 people, Ticino is one of the smallest cantons in Switzerland, a nation of eight million.
There are some 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland, mainly for North Africa and the Balkans.
They represent 5 per cent of the population of Switzerland - but an even lower proportion of just 2 per cent in Ticino, the Central Islamic Council said.
"This result underlines a certain degree of disquiet in the population," said Swiss President Ueli Maurer.
He underlined that it came in the wake of a nationwide referendum in November 2009 which led to a ban on the construction of new mosque minarets beyond the four already built in the country.
That referendum was pushed heavily by President Maurer's right-wing populist Swiss People's Party, known for its anti-immigration stance.
Switzerland faced a barrage of international criticism following the 2009 vote.