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(Brussels, April 21, 2010) - The Belgian Parliament should vote down a bill that would criminalize wearing the full Muslim veil in all public places in Belgium, Human Rights Watch said today. The lower chamber of Parliament is expected to debate the bill, approved in the Home Affairs Committee at the end of March, in the plenary session that opens on April 22, 2010.

"Bans like this lead to a lose-lose situation," said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. "They violate the rights of those who choose to wear the veil and do nothing to help those who are compelled to do so."

Twenty out of 589 municipalities in Belgium already prohibit wearing full Muslim veils in public. Similar local restrictions exist in parts of Italy and the Netherlands. However, approval by the Belgian Parliament of the current bill would make Belgium the first country in Europe to adopt a nationwide ban.

The bill, approved unanimously by the lower chamber's Home Affairs Committee on March 31, would make it a crime to be in a public place with one's face partially or wholly concealed in a way that would make identification impossible. Violators would be subject to a fine of 15 to 25 euros and/or a prison sentence of one to seven days. While the bill is couched in neutral language, the measure is clearly aimed at prohibiting women from wearing the burqa and niqab in public.

Mouvement Réformateur, the center-right political party that initiated the bill, describes it as a ban on burqas, promoting the measure as a way to liberate women and ensure public security, as well as to send a "message" to Islamists.

There is no evidence that wearing the full veil in public threatens public safety, public order, health, morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others - the only legitimate grounds for interference with fundamental rights, Human Rights Watch said. And rather than help women who are coerced into wearing the veil, a ban would limit, if not eliminate, their ability to seek advice and support. Indeed, the primary impact of legislation of this kind would be to confine these women to their homes, rather than to liberate them, Human Rights Watch said.

There are no official statistics on how many women wear face-covering veils, though analysts agree it is a marginal phenomenon among the roughly 400,000 Muslims living in Belgium (about 4 percent of the country's population). In 2009, 29 women were stopped by police in eight municipalities in the Brussels region that ban the full Muslim veil. It is unclear whether the women were penalized as a result.

A blanket ban on wearing such garments in public violates the fundamental right to freedom of religion, thought, and conscience as well as the right to personal autonomy, Human Rights Watch said. Bans of this nature - whether formulated in neutral terms or explicitly targeting the Muslim veil - have a disproportionate impact on Muslim women, and thereby violate the right to freedom from discrimination on the basis of religion and gender.

A wholesale ban on the full veil in public is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and is likely to also run afoul of European Union laws against discrimination, Human Rights Watch said. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in a recent case that restrictions on religious dress in public areas violated the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. In the February ruling, the Court found that Turkey had violated the rights of 127 members of a religious group called Aczimendi tarikatÿ who had been convicted in 1997 of breaking a law against wearing religious clothing in public except for religious ceremonies.

The vote in Belgium focusing on a minority of Muslim women also risks setting a negative precedent at a time of generally increasing intolerance toward Muslims in Europe, Human Rights Watch said. The French government announced today it will propose legislation to ban the veil in public places; bills for such bans have been introduced  in Italy and the Netherlands; and prominent politicians and elected officials in Switzerland and Austria have indicated they may see a need in the future for such prohibitions. The December 2009 referendum vote in Switzerland banning construction of minarets on mosques anywhere in the country following a campaign marked by anti-Islam rhetoric galvanized far-right parties across Europe.

A major survey commissioned by the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency between April and November 2008 in 14 European countries found that one in three Muslims had experienced some kind of discrimination over the previous twelve months. One in 10 said they had suffered a racially motivated assault, threat, or serious harassment at least once during that time.

Policies of forced veiling violate women's rights to personal autonomy, and may also violate their freedom of religion, conscience, and belief. Restrictions on wearing the veil in public life are as much a violation of the rights of women as is forcing them to wear a veil, Human Rights Watch said.

"At a time when Muslims in Europe feel more vulnerable than ever, the last thing needed is a ban like this," Sunderland said. "Treating pious Muslim women like criminals won't help integrate them."

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