Collapse of Belgian coalition stops burqa ban vote

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The collapse of the Belgian coalition government Thursday prevented the country's parliament from voting in Europe's first ban on wearing the Islamic burqa in public.

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

Parliamentary party heads then announced that the chamber "has decided there won't be a plenary session," while the Belgian king consults with leaders over the next step.

Belgium's King Albert II was considering whether to accept Leterme's resignation, making the burqa ban vote an early casualty of the political turmoil.

The controversial decision 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," a parliamentary spokeswoman told AFP.

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 and therefore introduce the first such ban in Europe.

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," he added.

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's political crisis was prompted Thursday after a key Flemish party quit Leterme's five-party coalition government.

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

Leterme has only been at the helm for five months, since his predecessor Herman Van Rompuy quit suddenly in November to become the European Union's first council president.

© 2010 AFP

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