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Canada considers: Can rape accuser testify under veil?

In the Supreme Court of Canada on Thursday, judges and lawyers debated court rules governing a rape case in which the alleged victim seeks to testify while wearing a religious head covering — a niqab — which obscures her entire face, except for her eyes, the Toronto Globe and Mail reported.

The case is a sensitive one — weighing religious freedoms in Canada with the concern for the right to a fair trial — at a time when the religious and racial makeup of the country is rapidly changing.

The woman, who is being identified only as N.S., is a Muslim who accuses two men of raping her when she was a child, the Globe said.

A defense attorney representing one of the accused men pressed for N.S. to testify uncovered, arguing that the face of the witness offers critical clues to a lawyer doing cross-examination, according to the report.

He argued that the veil impinges on a provision in Canada’s Charter of Rights that ensures the right of a defendant to face his accuser.

The prosecuting attorney, who asserts that his client should be able to testify in niqab, faced a barrage of questions from the judges.

The prosecutor argued that interpreting a witness’s demeanor in court is notoriously unreliable, according to the Globe. In addition, he said that rape victims sometimes find their manner is used against them to suggest the rape was in fact consensual sex.

The Muslim civil rights group the Canadian Council on American Islamic Relations portrayed the case as one that will decide whether Muslim women -- at least the minority that wear headcoverings--will have equal access to Canada's justice system.

CAIR filed an amicus brief emphasizing the part of Canada's Charter that guarantees "the right to integrate" into Canada's mainstream in spite of differences in ethnic, religious or cultural differences.

"The choice the appellant faces is between walking away from her religious convictions as a person of faith, and walking away from the pursuit of justice as a victim of an alleged sexual assault," CAIR said. 

The Toronto Globe and Mail, with Kari Huus, msnbc.com.

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