UK Sikhs join protest at Human Rights Court verdict
Sikhs in the UK have joined the outcry against a decision by the European Court of Human Rights to uphold a French law which bans the wearing of the turban on identity document photographs.
The Sikh Federation (UK) has pledged to exert political pressure for a reversal, singling out Members of the European Parliament as possible allies.
The Court in Strasbourg dismissed a legal challenge filed by United Sikhs on behalf of French resident Shingara Mann Sikh, but United Sikhs immediately rejected the Court’s justification that religious freedom could be denied on the basis of public security and protection of public order.
French regulations require motorists to appear “bareheaded and facing forward” in their driver’s licence photographs. Shingara Singh, a 53-year-old from the northern Paris suburbs, had his replacement licence application refused in 2005 and again in 2006.
When the verdict was announced, he said: “The Court’s judgement is oppression against the Sikh community because a Sikh is mandated by his faith to wear a turban at all times. The Court has clearly not recognized what the turban means to a Sikh.”
Mejindarpal Kaur, United Sikhs’ Director for International Civil and Human Rights Advocacy, said: “We submitted three compelling arguments before the European Court of Human Rights.
“Firstly, that European Commission regulations do not require a bare head as a minimum requirement for other ID documents – e.g. a passport – because of the advent of biometrics; secondly, that a Sikh wears a dastaar (Sikh turban) at all times and hence is only identifiable with his turban, and thirdly, that there is no evidence that the Sikh turban poses a security threat, as evidenced by the fact that France allows Sikhs of other nationalities to travel through France with ID photographs displaying the turban on their driver’s licences and passports.”
She said: “This decision is a travesty of justice against the Sikh community which views the Court’s decision as perverse because the Court did not require a response from France before issuing a decision that deeply interferes with a Sikh’s basic religious rights.”
United Sikhs, a global lobbying group, will now file cases before the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee on behalf of Shingara Singh and another man, Ranjit Singh, concerning ID photographs on their passport and residence cards, respectively.
Shingara Singh’s London Lawyer, Stephen Grosz of Bindmans LLP said the Court was quite wrong to declare that removing a turban was necessary for identification and, he said, identifying a Sikh who wears a turban at all times with an ID photograph without the turban did not accord with common sense.
“The issue is serious enough to demand the French government to justify this restriction, which the Court did not,” he said.
Mr Grosz said the decisions would not legally affect the fight which United Sikhs would be pursuing through the UN Human Rights Committee, as the Committee was not bound by the decision of the European Court of Human Rights. “Additionally, the UN Human Rights Committee has traditionally been much more receptive to cases of religious discrimination than the Strasburg Court. We hope this tendency will continue,” he said.
Bhai Amrik Singh, chair of the Sikh Federation (UK) speaking from Southampton, said the verdict was hugely disappointing but Sikhs would challenge it as discrimination. “We will continue to exert political pressure so the Sikh identity is properly protected throughout Europe,” he said.
He added: “The new pan-European credit card-style driving licence will begin in 2013 and we have in the past been given assurances by certain Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) that photographs of Sikhs whilst wearing their turbans will be allowed for the new driving licence. In light of the Court’s decision we will have to maintain pressure on the MEPs on this issue.”
Disappointment, anger and concern has been expressed in France, America and Canada.
Chain Singh, President of Bobigny Gurdwara, the largest Sikh place of worship in France, said: “We are living under duress under French law. Our children who are citizens of France cannot get education with their identity intact. What’s our future in France? We are deeply shocked. Our future is in the hands of the Sikh Qaum (community) now more than ever. The Sikh Qaum has to now decide the future of Sikhs globally.”
Gurdial Singh, who has been in the forefront of the Right to Turban campaign in France, said: “We thought that we would get justice in the European court. This decision is a violation of religious freedom. This is the start of European fundamentalism. But I have full faith that the Guru will defend the Turban, if he wants us to continue wearing his turban. We are the foot-soldiers; the Guru is the general and will give us victory eventually.”
Dr Pritpal Singh, Co-ordinator of the American Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, said: “This judgment is a rude shock. They have cut us out from the tree of justice completely.”
Gurbax Singh Malhi, a Canadian MP, said: “Sikhs should globally decide what the way forward should be. Sikhs are peace-loving and hardworking and their turban should not be perceived as a security threat.”
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