PERTH, Australia — An Australian court ruled Thursday that a Muslim witness must remove her face-covering veil to give evidence at a fraud trial, stoking national debate on the issue.
The Perth District Court ruled that the woman, 36, must take off the niqab veil during her testimony, but judge Shauna Deane stressed that the order should not be considered a national precedent.
Known only as Tasneem, the South African woman has worn all-covering Islamic dress she was 17 and told the court she only removed it in the company of her husband.
But the defence said jurors would not be able to properly assess the credibility of her evidence without being able to see her facial expressions.
"The trial process must be fair to all concerned," the judge said.
"In the end, and I stress in the circumstances of this particular case, I do not consider it to be appropriate to permit the witness to give evidence at trial whilst wearing a niqab," she added.
The judge was yet to decide whether the woman can give evidence by videolink to protect her modesty.
The case revived debate over the issue, with both Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her conservative rival for Saturday's election, Tony Abbott, expressing discomfort at all-enveloping Muslim dress.
"I don't particularly like the burqa, and I would prefer that it was not worn, but I don't think we have the sort of problem in this country that would require a ban," Abbott said.
Gillard agreed that the "sight of the burqa on our streets is confronting".
"But I also believe that in a free country, a wonderful democracy like this one, people should be able to be absolutely free to choose what they want to wear," she added.
Last month, France banned face-covering veils in public places. Lawmakers in the Australian state of New South Wales rejected a similar bid by a Christian party in May.
Muslims make up about 1.7 percent of Australia's predominantly Christian population of 22 million, and religious tensions have run high in recent years including race riots at a Sydney beach in December 2005.
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