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Judge bans burqa in Australian court

world Updated: Aug 19, 2010 18:50 IST
IANS
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An Australian judge on Thursday refused to allow a Muslim woman to wear a full-face veil in court during her testimony as a witness in a fraud trial.

Perth's District Court Judge Shauna Deane said that in the interest of a fair trial the witness should not be allowed to wear a niqab or burqa. But she said she would speak to counsel about ways to accommodate the witness, The Age reported.

The judge did not agree with an argument that the witness was peripheral to the case and said that the jury should have the opportunity to assess her facial expressions to help weigh her credibility as a witness.

The 36-year-old witness, known only as Tasneem, wanted to wear a full burqa while giving evidence in the fraud trial of Muslim school director Anwar Sayed, the report said.

Sayed is accused of fraudulently stealing up to $750,000 in public funds by artificially inflating student numbers at his school, the Muslim Ladies College in Perth's southern suburbs.

The judge said her decision was not to set a precedent for other courts -- it was up to them to assess similar circumstances on a case-by-case basis.

Sayed said he was concerned about his and the witness' safety.

"I had no objection (to the niqab being worn in court). I said it very clearly and categorically before, so this was a legal matter in which I had no role to play," he said.

Sayed was allegedly stabbed last week after receiving death threats in hand-written notes and phone calls about the issue.

One of Sayed's lawyers, Ludher Swaran, said Sayed was anxious over the case because he had become quite isolated within the Muslim community.

Swaran said Sayed was shy of cameras because he was nervous about being recognised and attacked on the street.

The debate whether wearing a niqab in court was appropriate has stirred a lot of controversy in the community.

It has also gained national attention since it is understood to be the first time a witness has asked to wear a niqab, with only a space for the eyes, in an Australian court.

Being a strict Muslim, Tasneem has never showed her face in public in 18 years and would find it stressful to reveal her face to strange men, prosecutor Mark Ritter told the court during oral submissions Aug 5.

Tasneem worked at the school as a tutor and was not considered a central witness, according to Ritter.

Defence lawyer Mark Trowell agreed, saying his only concern regarding the use of the niqab was that the jury would not be able to see the woman's facial expressions when trying to gauge the credibility of her testimony.

He suggested to judge Deane that if the witness was allowed to wear the full-face veil, then the jury should be directed to take that into consideration when weighing the evidence against his client.

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