A 32-year-old mother in France could go to jail for two years after she refused to perform 15 days of "citizenship" service for wearing an Islamic veil.

Hind Ahmas was arrested outside Elysee Palace in Paris on April 11 after she disobeyed an order to remove her niqab. Magistrates in the suburb of Meaux handed down the 15-day-sentence Monday, but Ahmas was not even allowed to be present in court because she continued to wear the religious veil.

"There is no possibility of me removing the veil," Ahmas said at a press conference following the hearing. "I'm not taking it off. The judge needs citizenship lessons, not me."

Ahmas also could be forced to pay a fine of about $40,000.

France became the first European country to enforce a ban on Muslim face veils in April.

The law came into effect at a moment already fraught with tension between the French and the country's Muslim minority population, with Sarkozy accused of stigmatizing Islam to win back votes from a resurgent far right.

French officials estimate that only around 2,000 women, from a total Muslim population estimated at between four and six million, wear the full-face veils that are traditional in parts of the Arab world and South Asia.

Many Muslims and rights activists say the right-wing president is targeting one of France’s most vulnerable groups to signal to anti-immigration voters that he shares their fear that Islam is a threat to French culture.

“Women in France have the right to freedom of religion and expression. They must also be free to protest when this right is violated,” said John Dalhuisen, a director at Amnesty International.

“This law puts France to shame — a country that prides itself on the human rights it claims to promote and protect, freedom of expression included.”

-- With AFP