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Court ruling fires U.K. debate on Muslim veils

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By Reuters
Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, 9:12 p.m.

LONDON — A British judge ruled on Monday that a Muslim woman could not give evidence at her trial wearing a full-face veil, sparking debate about whether Britain should follow other European countries and ban Islamic veils in schools and public places.

Senior politicians played down the likelihood of a ban when one minister said the coalition government should consider forbidding full-face veils, or niqabs, in schools, a measure that is gaining support from some members of parliament.

“My own view, very strongly held, is that we shouldn't end up like other countries issuing edicts or laws from parliament telling people what they should or should not wear,” said Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the coalition's junior centrist party, the Liberal Democrats.

“This is a free country, and people going about their own business should be free to wear what they wish.”

The case comes as the government considers how to better integrate Britain's 2.7 million Muslims without restricting the right to freedom of religious expression.

The conundrum took on added significance after four British Islamists carried out deadly suicide bombings in London in 2005.

Britain has steered clear of following the examples of France and Belgium, where it is illegal for women to wear full-face veils in public.

But in the significant ruling, a Muslim woman, who argued that removing her veil in court breached her human rights, was told she could not wear it when giving evidence.

“The niqab has become the elephant in the courtroom,” said Judge Peter Murphy, who made the compromise that she could wear her veil at all other times during a trial later this year over accusations she had intimidated a witness in another case.

Murphy said it would “drive a coach and horses through the way in which justice has been administered in the courts of England and Wales for centuries” if jurors could not observe her reactions.

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