French court hands down first "burqa ban" fines
By Pauline Mevel
MEAUX, France (Reuters) - A French court fined two Muslim women on Thursday for wearing full-face veils in public, the first time a judge has imposed punishment under a "burqa ban" law that has become a legal and cultural battleground across Europe.
One of the women pledged immediately to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to overturn the ban, which President Nicolas Sarkozy says protects women and guarantees equality but opponents argue violates human rights and panders to xenophobia.
Only a tiny percentage of French Muslim women wear full-face veils. But the law, which took effect in April, has become a focus of debate in mainly-secular Europe, where right-wing parties hostile to Muslim immigration are gaining support.
The Strasbourg-based European court can consider whether to overturn the French law now that a French court has enforced it. A ruling in Strasbourg could have an impact in other EU countries which are considering similar laws.
"(This) violates European laws. For us the question isn't the amount of the fine but the principle. We can't accept that women are sentenced because they are freely expressing their religious beliefs," Hind Ahmas told reporters outside the court, where she was fined 120 euros (104 pounds).
"We are going to launch the necessary appeals to bring this before the European Court and obtain the cancellation of this law, which is in any case an illegal law," she said.
A second woman, Najate Naitali, was fined 80 euros in absentia by the court in the town of Meaux, northeast of Paris.
Ahmas said she would also appeal her sentence in a French court with the backing of French businessman Rachid Nekkaz who has pledged to pay all fines imposed under the ban. Continued...