'Dangerous precedent'

Amnesty International, a human rights group, said the measures must be reviewed by the upper house of parliament as they raise concerns about whether Belgium is in breach of international rights laws.

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"A complete ban on the covering of the face would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who wear  the burqa or the niqab," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's expert on discrimination in Europe.

"The Belgian move to ban full face veils, the first in Europe, sets a dangerous precedent."

The law, which still needs to be passed by Belgium's senate, will be imposed in streets, public gardens and sports grounds or buildings "meant for public use or to provide services" to the public.

"We're the first country to spring the locks that have made a good number of women slaves, and we hope to be followed by France, Switzerland, Italy, and the Netherlands; countries that think," said Denis Ducarme, a liberal deputy.

People who ignore the ban could face a fine of $20 to $34 and, or, a jail sentence of up to seven days.

'Disturbing' law

"It's just a pretext," said Samuel Bulte, a convert to Islam handing out flyers and religious objects in front of the mosque.

"How many robberies are committed wearing a burqa?

"I'm afraid that soon they're going to want to start putting crescents on the backs of Muslims," he said, in a reference to the yellow stars the Nazis forced Jews to wear.

Another man outside the mosque said: "The Virgin Mary also wore a veil. No one says anything about this."

Nearby, 25-year-old Said said he was stunned "that a secular country would get mixed up in religion."

Bruno Tuybens, a Flemish Socialist, was one of the two deputies who abstained from Thursday's vote.

"This law disturbs me," he said. "I believe in freedom of expression and I don't think it should be restricted unless it's in very exceptional circumstances.

"There is no link at all between crime and wearing the burqa or niqab."

Sarkozy support

In Le Soir, a French newspaper, Michael Privot, an Islamic scholar, said Belgium "now joins Iran and Saudi Arabia in that exclusive but unenviable rare club of countries to impose a dress code in the public domain".

Nicolas Sarkozy has declared that the face veil is not welcome in France [EPA] 

He said the three cite "the protection of dignity, or even the freedom, of women to justify the unjustifiable: the restriction of individual freedoms of some of our citizens".

Nicolas Sarkozy, France's president, has declared that the face veil is not welcome in his country, calling it an affront to French values that denigrates women.

France's National Assembly will begin debate in early July on a bill banning the full face veil. 

A final draft of the legislation outlawing the article of clothing from all public spaces as well as state institutions is set to be approved by the cabinet on May 19.

Staunchly secular France passed a law in 2004 banning the wearing of headscarves or any other "conspicuous" religious symbols in state schools.