The ban imposed in Belgium on burqas and other full-face Islamic veils has been upheld today by the European Court of Human Rights.
Judges said the nationwide prohibition, which came into effect in 2011, does not violate the rights to private and family life and freedom of religion, or discrimination laws.
In today’s judgment in the case of Belcacemi and Oussar vs. Belgium the Court held, unanimously, that there had been: no violation of Articles 8 (right to respect for private and family life) and 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights, and no violation of Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) taken together with Articles 8 and 9.
The case concerned the ban on the wearing in public of clothing that partly or totally covers the face under the Belgian law of 1 June 2011.
The Court found in particular that the restriction sought to guarantee the conditions of “living together” and the “protection of the rights and freedoms of others” and that it was “necessary in a democratic society”.
The applicants, Samia Belcacemi (a Belgian national) and Yamina Oussar (a Moroccan national), were born in 1981 and 1973 respectively and live in Schaerbeek and Liège (Belgium). The case concerns the Belgian law of 1 June 2011 banning the wearing in public places of clothing which partially or totally covers the face.
Belcacemi andOussar present themselves as Muslims who have decided on their own initiative to wear the niqab – a veil covering the face except for the eyes – on account of their religious convictions.
Following the enactment on 1 June 2011 of the law in question, Belcacemi initially decided to continue wearing the veil in the street. However, under pressure, she subsequently decided to remove her veil temporarily, being afraid that she might be stopped in the street and then heavily fined or even sent to prison. Oussar, for her part, states that she has decided to stay at home, with the resulting restriction on her private and social life.
On 26 July 201 Belcacemi and Oussar brought actions for the suspension and annulment of the law before the Constitutional Court. Their cases were dismissed by that court in October 2011 (application for suspension) and in December 2012 (application for annulment).
In March, the European Court of Justice found that companies can legally ban Muslim employees from wearing headscarves, but only as part of prohibitions including other religious and political symbols.
Islamic veils have become a flashpoint for European debates over integration, extremism and freedom of religion in recent years, with France the first to implement a nationwide burqa ban in April 2011.
Belgium and Bulgaria followed, with partial or regional prohibitions now in place in Italy, Spain, Denmark and Switzerland.