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Australian Police Now Able to Demand Removal of Face Veils

The government in Australia's most populous state has given the police new powers to order the removal of burqas and other face veils. The authorities say the rules will help officers during routine roadside checks if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that a crime has been committed. While Islamic organizations say they are comfortable with the changes, civil libertarians believe they give the police unnecessary powers.

New South Wales has introduced the changes following a high-profile case in which a Muslim woman accused a police officer of racism after he demanded she remove her burqa during a roadside check.

The Sydney woman was sentenced to prison for six months for falsely accusing the officer of forcing her to remove her veil during a random breath test.

But her conviction was overturned on appeal when a judge found that the prosecution couldn't prove it was the defendant who had knowingly made a false complaint, because the officers could not see her face.

This week lawmakers responded to the incident by passing a measure that gives police in Australia’s most populous state the ability to force people to remove face coverings, including religious garments and helmets, if they’re suspected of committing a crime.

The New South Wales Chief Minister Barry O'Farrell says the changes will help the police do their job properly.

“What we're determined to do is give police the powers they need to establish identity in those instances where they need to do so,” he said.

While civil liberty groups worry that the police are being given powers they don’t need, many Islamic organizations in Australia support the changes as long as officers treat Muslim women with sensitivity.

Jamila Hussain, who teaches a course in Sharia law at the University of Technology in Sydney, says the new laws should not offend the Muslim community.

“If you live outside an Islamic country, then you have to obey the law of the land. And if the law of the land says that you need to remove your face veil for identification, then you should do so. And you really have no excuse for not doing so,” said Hussain.

In New South Wales, anyone who refuses to remove their face covering will face fines of up to $6,000 or a year in prison.

The Western Australian state government is considering introducing similar legislation.