Judge considers allowing burqa
Perth – A Muslim witness in an Australian fraud trial has requested permission to wear an all-covering burqa in court, in a case that has sparked nationwide interest and comments from campaigning politicians.
District Court Judge Shauna Deane heard submissions on Thursday from lawyers on both sides about whether the 36-year-old woman should be allowed to wear a burqa while giving evidence.
The woman is a prosecution witness in the case against the director of a company that ran a Muslim women's college who is accused of inflating student numbers to claim extra grant money.
Defence lawyers raised concerns that the jury would not be able to read the woman's facial expressions if she is veiled, therefore making it difficult to assess her testimony.
Prosecutor Mark Ritter told the court that the woman – an Islamic studies teacher – wanted to give evidence but would feel highly uncomfortable without the covering and that could affect her evidence.
"It goes beyond stress... it would have a negative impact," Ritter said.
He said the woman, who has lived in Australia for seven years, has worn the burqa since the age of 17 and only removes it when she is with her family.
Comparison to France and Belgium
The witness is testifying in the case against Anwar Sayed, director of a company that ran the Perth college. Sayed allegedly inflated the number of students at the school in 2006 and 2007 to claim more than $916 000 in state and federal grants.
While the judge has said her decision would not set a precedent on wearing the burqa in Australia, the issue has prompted comparisons to France and Belgium, where efforts are under way to ban the wearing of Islamic face veils.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott, who hopes to become prime minister in elections later this month, said on Wednesday that he opposed the wearing of burqas.
"I find the burqa a particularly confronting form of attire and I would very much wish that fewer Australians would choose it," Abbott said.
A Muslim community leader in Perth told the Australian Broadcasting Corp that it is culturally acceptable for a woman to take off her veil during legal proceedings.
"From a strictly Islamic perspective, a woman is required to remove her face covering in a court of law," Sheik Feizel Chothia said om Thursday.
The judge said she will hand down her decision on August 19.