Belgian lawmakers are set Thursday to impose a ban on wearing the Islamic burqa in public, the first clampdown of its kind in Europe, unless the nation’s political crisis disrupts their vote.
On March 31, the federal parliament’s home affairs committee voted unanimously to endorse a nationwide ban on clothes or veils that do not allow the wearer to be fully identified, including the full-face niqab and burqa.
Those who ignore it could face a fine of 15-25 euros (20-34 dollars) and/or a jail sentence of up to seven days, unless they have police permission to wear the garments.
The governing parties and opposition agree on the move, and the full house is widely expected to easily endorse the draft law, which is on the agenda for Thursday.
But a deep political crisis is looming after a party threatened to pull out of the government if tense negotiations between the French and Dutch-language communities on power-sharing are not finalised in 24 hours.
“There is a hitch. The agenda of the chamber could be thrown into disarray depending on how the political situation evolves,” one official said.
A leading rights watchdog late Wednesday warned against the move saying it would be counterproductive.
“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.”
It said there was no evidence that wearing the full veil in public threatened public safety, public order, health, morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
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, it said, adding that the primary impact of legislation of this kind would be to confine these women to their homes, rather than to liberate them.
The kingdom’s leaders and factions have held late night talks all week in an effort to end the standoff, part of a row over the devolution of federal powers which has plagued Belgium since the last elections in June 2007.
A mediator — former premier Jean-Luc Dehaene — charged by King Albert II to pave the way for an agreement conceded late Tuesday that he had been unable to find the compromise needed to rally all parties.
Prime Minister Yves Leterme is due to face parliament at 1215 GMT on Thursday and it had been hoped that a deal would be concluded well before then.
Flanders, Belgium’s Dutch-speaking region accounting for some 60 percent of the 10.5 million population, has stepped up its efforts to seek more powers to reflect its prosperity.