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Swiss Minaret Ban Faces Challenge At Human Rights Court

Supporters of the ban fear the 'Islamization' of Switzerland.
GENEVA (Reuters) - An Algerian-born Muslim living in Switzerland has lodged a complaint at the European Court of Human Rights against the Swiss ban on minarets, his lawyer said today.

Hafid Ouardiri, a former spokesman at the Geneva Mosque, submitted the challenge alleging the referendum verdict barring construction of the Islamic towers impinges on the rights of freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination.

"The prohibition on the construction of minarets in Switzerland is a violation of Article 9, Article 13, and Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights," said Pierre de Preux, legal counsel for Ouardiri.

Swiss nationals voted 57.5 percent in favor of the ban in the November 29 referendum backed by the right-wing Swiss People's Party, which said it opposed the "Islamization of Switzerland" and campaigned with posters depicting minarets as missiles.

The non-EU country of nearly 7 million people is home to about 300,000 Muslims, mainly from Bosnia, Kosovo, and Turkey.

Switzerland's federal government had urged Swiss voters to reject it, warning it would contravene religious freedom and human rights and could stoke extremism.

De Preux said this stance would lead to unusual proceedings in Strasbourg, with both sides effectively opposing the measure backed in the popular poll.

"We will have both the plaintiff Hafid Ouardiri and the defendant, Switzerland, saying the same thing," he told Reuters. "The court is still free to decide whatever it wants, but it sure is going to help the request."

Ouardiri was born in Algeria and has French citizenship, and has been residing in Switzerland for more than 30 years, according to his lawyer, who said it was possible for a non-national to bring a complaint to Strasbourg.

"You don't need to be a citizen of the country; you need to be affected by whatever decision or regulation that constitutes the violation," he said.

Thorbjoern Jagland, Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, said last month that the Swiss vote raised concern over "whether fundamental rights of individuals, protected by international treaties, should be subject to popular votes."

"It would be up to the European Court of Human Rights to decide, should an application be submitted to the Court, whether the prohibition of building new minarets is compatible with the Convention," he said in a November 30 statement.

Plaintiffs must exhaust the legal system in their country before bringing a complaint to Strasbourg, but Switzerland's highest court cannot hear cases stemming from a referendum.

"The constitutional provision that prohibits the construction of minarets was adopted in a public vote and there is no constitutional court ruling over this," de Preux explained. "All authorities in Switzerland including the federal Supreme Court must apply that prohibition."

Strasbourg authorities are expected to take up to a year and a half to determine whether Ouardiri's complaint is "formally receivable," the Geneva-based lawyer said. Once the request is approved, it would take a few more years to get to a ruling.