Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Burqa Burqa

The Burqa story was made for tabloid.

It has all the ingredients.  A sense of injustice because someone has apparently dodged the law because of a sneaky lawyer.

Racial elements, with a heady dose of Islamaphobia. There were scuffles outside court and a chance to use the words "radical cleric" in a headline.

Finally, who could resist the chance to have a shot at the court system?

In short, it was a tabloid editor's wet dream.

For those of you not in the know, a Muslim by the name of Carnita Williams was pulled over by a highway patrolman for not displaying her P-plates.  

For some reason that is not clear, she then leaves the car, and is clearly captured on the car's video camera ranting and raving at the officer.  The officer, to his credit, keeps his composure and does his job well.

The view from the in-car camera.  Photo from The Daily Telegraph
Later on that day, police alleged, Carnita Williams made an official complaint by lodging a statutory declaration at Campbelltown police station that the officer had threatened to rip her veil off.

The video was retrieved and viewed, and not long after Police launched a prosecution against Ms Williams for making a false complaint.

I'm not sure precisely what she was charged with, but by way of example, section 314 of the Crimes Act says that "A person who makes an accusation intending a person to be the subject of an investigation of an offence, knowing that other person to be innocent of the offence, is liable to imprisonment for 7 years."

At the Local Court she was convicted and sentenced to six months imprisonment. On 22 June that decision was set aside on appeal to the District Court, and she was acquitted.

The problem lay in that police could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was Ms Matthews who made the complaint.  Police apparently did not ask her to confirm her identity when the filed the complaint.

It appears that Police may not have in fact had the power to force her to remove her veil when making the complaint, although whether they should have accepted her complaint without her doing so is worthy of reflection.

Ms Williams outside court.  Photo from The Daily Telegraph
Suffice to say, the media went into a bit of a frenzy over the case.

As you can see from the watermark on the above video, the major networks all played the video.  The Daily Telegraph led with little else for over a week, milking the story further by covering the paper's attempts to have a copy of the statutory declaration in question released to the media.

When the Police Commissioner sought the power to order women to remove burqas, the Tele had this graphic for us:

From The Daily Telegraph
Barry O'Farrell quickly acted on the pressure from the Tele, and was quoted yesterday as saying "I don't care whether a person is wearing a motorcycle helmet, a burqa, niqab, face veil or anything else - the police should be allowed to require those people to make their identification clear."

The changes mooted would allow police to force a person to identity themselves when spoken to by police in relation to minor matters, not just serious ones (as section 11 of the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act empowers).

The interesting thing for me was that just most Islam-related lobbies and interest groups have supported the changes. The Islamic Council of NSW and Mulsim Australians were good examples.

Watching SBS news as I write this, a reporter claimed that every Muslim she spoke to on the street (both those wearing burqas and those not) supported the changes.

Predictably, civil libertarians were unhappy, but then they never are.

The issue of burqas is a sensitive issue.  Accusations of racism and xenophobia are often just below the surface.  

On the other side, the campaign by the Telegraph was a powerful one, and you don't need a Newspoll to tell you that changes would be popular.

That said, the poll on the Telegraph website (96.5% in favour of changes) was probably less than scientific.

Normally I would bemoan any change brought on by a newspaper campaign.  Often they are ill-founded and based more upon stoking fear in the community.

This time round, however, there seems to be a genuine need for the changes. Police need to be able to positively identify people who they suspect have committed an offence.

The real test is going to be the precise composition of the laws.  On what basis will police able to demand that a woman remove her burqa? What safe-guards will there be to ensure that the new powers are not abused?

No doubt there will be a lot of people (including me) taking a very careful look at the wording of the section when they are released to ensure that the government is not using this as a chance to dramatically increase police powers.

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