French Ramadan trial story revives church-state debate

September 8, 2008

A Ramadan soup kitchen in Paris, 16 Oct 2006/Charles PlatiauShould a court delay the opening of a trial because a Muslim defendant is weak due to the Ramadan fast? A dispute has broken out in France about this because a court in Rennes allowed just such a delay for a French Muslim accused of armed robbery. His lawyer had said his client would be in “great physical and psychological weakness” due to the fast. Critics promptly cried foul and accused the court of violating laïcité, France’s separation of church and state. The Rennes public prosecutor denied the decision was made for religious reasons, citing other complicating factors he said must be resolved before the trial could start.

The case looks like the “virginity lie” dispute back in June. In both, a court is accused of wrongly taking religious considerations into account to give a ruling favourable to Muslims. The court denies the charge. In the end, it turns out that the lawyer involved got the desired ruling without formally arguing for it on religious grounds. It all seems legitimate but leaves the impression with the public that exceptions are being made for Muslims.

A lawyer for one of the seven men on trial in Rennes on the armed robbery charges further complicated things by saying the real issue was discrimination. “I don’t understand this uproar in the media when it’s normal procedure to obtain a delay because of Jewish or other feast days,” Yann Choucq said. “And there are no court hearings on Christmas or Easter.  Are some religions more respectable than others?”

Asked about the case on Europe 1 radio, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the archbishop of Paris, said nobody could criticise a lawyer for using all the options the law allowed to defend a client. But he said he thought courts in Muslim countries worked straight through Ramadan.

Just to be sure, I asked our Cairo bureau how courts deal with Ramadan there. According to our court reporter, nobody there has ever asked for a delay because of weakness due to Ramadan. In fact, courts sometimes sit during the day, break for the iftar meal at sundown and then resume the session.  So they don’t make any exception.

Is it discriminatory to refuse to accommodate a Muslim during Ramadan?

One comment

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Based on what the Cairo court person said I think it is more racist to allow it rather than to ignore it. How can muslims there handle it and this “poor poor man” not be able to? Ramadan isn’t about starving so you can get away with crimes, it is about giving devotion to God. I think the defendant misses the point.

Posted by Ben | Report as abusive