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Collapse of Belgian coalition set to delay burqa ban decision

A political crisis in Belgium was set to prevent a much-anticipated parliamentary vote Thursday on banning the wearing of the Islamic burqa in public, amid fierce opposition from rights groups.

Prime Minister Yves Leterme offered to quit over an unrelated intercommunal issue, throwing the country’s political institutions into turmoil.

With Belgian King Albert II withholding his decision on whether to accept the resignation, the vote on the first such ban in Europe appeared to be an early casualty of the political turmoil.

“We don’t know if there will be a parliamentary session this evening,” a spokesman for the federal parliament told AFP.

In any case “I would guess it (the burqa) won’t be on the agenda,” she added, saying the vote could be put on the agenda for the next parliamentary session in a week’s time “unless the government falls and the house of representatives is dissolved.”

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 had been widely expected to easily endorse the draft law on Thursday.

In anticipation of that vote rights group Amnesty International slammed the moves towards a ban on the Islamic veil.

“A general ban on the wearing of full face veils would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who choose to express their identity or beliefs in this way,” said Amnesty’s interim secretary general Claudio Cordone.

“At the same time the Belgian authorities must make sure that all women who wear the full veil do so without coercion, harassment and discrimination.”

Belgium is not the only EU country mulling such a ban.

The French government has also said a bill will be presented to ministers in May banning the niqab and the burqa from streets, shops and markets, and not just from public buildings as is the case now.

Belgium was plunged into political crisis on Thursday as Leterme threw in the towel after a key Flemish party quit his coalition government.

The situation was in flux, however, after the king delayed a decision on whether to accept Leterme’s resignation.

The prime minister’s decision was forced when his Flemish liberal allies, the Open VLD, quit the five-party coalition over a long-running row between the country’s Dutch-speaking and francophone communities over electoral rules in flashpoint suburbs of Brussels.