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Acquitted on appeal: Carnita Matthews — or is it? — leaves court in Sydney, shielded by her supporters (Fairfax) 

On June 7 last year, a little after 6pm, a Muslim woman named Carnita Matthews, dressed in a full burqa with facial niqab, was driving through the western suburbs of Sydney when a highway patrolman pulled her over for a random breath test. The 15-minute encounter that followed, which was recorded by a camera on the cop-car's dashboard, would prove to be one of the most resonant traffic stops in Australian history. Portions of the video have played repeatedly on the nightly news. Two court cases have ensued. Scrums of pious men have jostled camera crews on city streets. And now, as a direct consequence of the whole affair, the New South Wales government is about to introduce laws empowering police to order the temporary removal of facial coverings for purposes of identification. This legislation has been somewhat lazily compared to the burqa ban in France, although it has far more limited aims than the French measure. Still, the maximum penalties for non-compliance will be a lot tougher: a year's jail or a $5,500 (£3,500) fine, compared with the 150-euro (£132) wrist-slap applicable in France.  

The Matthews traffic stop, which can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube, began routinely enough. The policeman, Constable Paul Fogarty, took the standard look at Ms Matthews's photo licence. He then asked her to lift her veil for purposes of comparison. She did so, but dropped it before Fogarty could get a proper look at her face. He asked her to lift the veil again, and she did. Satisfied, Fogarty administered the breath test, which she passed.  

Now Fogarty moved to another matter. Ms Matthews, as the holder of a provisional licence, was obliged to display P-plates at both ends of her car. The one on the back was partly obscured: Matthews had wedged it behind her number plate to keep it in place, as many people do. Fogarty announced he was imposing a fine of $197. 

This was a legitimate ruling — Fogarty photographed the P-plate for the record — but it was unquestionably a bit pedantic. Matthews lost her temper. "I see what you're doing now," she said. "You're clearly now racist." "Sorry?" said Fogarty, a little stunned by the sudden playing of the card. Matthews, getting out of the car to inspect the offending P-plate, said: "You looked at me, and you see me with the niqab on, and you couldn't handle it ... You are racist. All cops are racist." She went on in this vein for another minute or two, with much gesticulation and finger-wagging. This part of the video has become a staple of the news coverage. Lately Ms Matthews has been on TV more often than both Minogue sisters combined, although nobody knows what she looks like. 

Matthews, it should be said, wasn't wrong to feel aggrieved about the fine. Anyone copping such a nitpicking ticket would feel thoroughly cheesed off. But it should also be said that police pedantry is a long-established tradition of the Australian road: it can be outrageous, but it falls on the robed and the unrobed alike. When Fogarty tells Matthews, on the video, that he doesn't "appreciate" being called a racist, he sounds as if he means it. Matthews informs him she'll be taking the matter to court. Fogarty replies, prophetically, that she will be wasting the court's time.

The affair went public three days later, when a woman calling herself Carnita Matthews arranged an interview with a TV news crew. The woman was wearing a veil and burqa, but only the hardiest of sceptics would have doubted, at the time, that she really was Carnita Matthews. After all, the interview took place in Ms Matthews's home, and concerned her treatment at the hands of Constable Fogarty. But we need to tread carefully, because the identity of this woman has since become a matter of legal  controversy.  

Whoever she was, the lady was about to up the ante. Having apparently forgotten the matter of the P-plate, she made a graver allegation. She claimed that Fogarty had lunged at her in an effort to remove her veil. "It felt like he actually punched my veil," she said. "I pulled back."

With the TV cameras still rolling, the woman got into her car, which looked an awful lot like the one in the breath-test video, and drove to the local police station to file a written complaint. A small entourage of supporters accompanied her.  Among them was a moustachioed, ponytailed, and instantly recognisable figure: a former inmate of Guantánamo Bay named Mamdouh Habib. 

Habib is an interesting character, and an odd choice of PR adviser. He spent a significant amount of time in Pakistan in the lead-up to September 11, 2001, exploring what his lawyer would later term a "lucrative business opportunity". Whether this opportunity also took him to certain rugged areas of Afghanistan remains slightly unclear: Habib has sometimes refused to comment on that charge, and at other times has hotly denied it. Arrested in Pakistan in October 2001, and subjected to alleged torture by interrogators in Cairo, he confessed to having given karate lessons to six of the 9/11 hijackers. He now maintains this was a false confession, extracted under duress; and his lawyer has put the matter to bed by pointing out that Habib only holds a yellow belt — several hues shy, clearly, of the type of belt required to run an al-Qaeda dojo. Habib was eventually released from Guantánamo Bay without charge. 

Accompanied by Habib, then, the woman in the burqa delivered a signed complaint to the police. This repeated the claim that Constable Fogarty had made a physical effort to lift her veil. "He moved closer to me in a threatening manner and moved his hand close to my veil where I felt he was going to rip it off my face," she wrote.  

The police, needless to say, take complaints of this kind very seriously indeed. But this one was doomed from the start. Investigators reviewed the video evidence, which shows nothing resembling a lunge at the veil. Nor, at any point on the tape, does Ms Matthews indicate that she "feels" such a lunge has occurred. And this isn't a woman who has any trouble speaking her mind. The video shows her calling Fogarty a "racist" some nine or ten times: but only because of his ruling on the P-plate. If any party reels back from the other, it is him from her. Fogarty's religious affiliation has never been specified, but he weathers the harangue with a restraint worthy of a third-level Buddhist. 

The whole thing plays like a PC-era remake of the Rodney King tape. In that case, four white cops beat the tripe out of a black man on camera and got away with it. In this case, a white cop does nothing wrong, then stands there and takes it while being roundly accused of racism by someone whose ethnic origins remain, to this day, unknown.  

Impeached by the video evidence, Ms Matthews was in trouble. She was charged with knowingly making a false statement. This turned out to be a serious offence, punishable by a maximum sentence of a year in jail. She appeared before a magistrate in November. But her lawyer — the same man who represents Mamdouh Habib, as it happens — was ready with an audacious defence. It seemed that when the lady in the burqa filed the false complaint, nobody at the police station had asked her to lift her veil. Perhaps, under the circumstances, the guy behind the desk feared this would be a bad career move. In any event, the defence argued that there was really no telling who had submitted the false statement. The woman in the burqa could have been anyone.  

The magistrate didn't buy it. He ruled that the signature on the complaint matched the one on Ms Matthews's driver's licence. There was, he said, not a "shadow of a doubt" that Carnita Matthews had made the false statement, and had done so knowingly. He called her actions "deliberate, malicious and ruthless". "The system would collapse, of course, if people are making false and wrong complaints to authorities," he said. He sentenced her to six months in jail. 

At this point, one felt a twinge of sympathy for Ms Matthews. Who knew you could get six months for playing the victim card? Who knew a religious person's feelings of persecution could be proved false in a court of law? Multicultural Australia can generally be relied on to "respect" any faith-based complaint. For instance: on day two or three of the affair, right after the video evidence exposed Ms Matthews's claims as baseless, the President of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board appeared on TV to insist that in such cases "a woman police officer has got to be called" — a proposal that sounded, to the untrained ear, like the very definition of discrimination. When serious public figures go round saying things like that, who can blame Carnita Matthews for trying it on? 

Luckily for Matthews, normal service was swiftly resumed. Her lawyer entered an immediate appeal, and she was released on bail. Then, this past June, a District Court judge quashed her conviction. "All we know is that a person with a black burqa came in with a man in a brown suit with an envelope and that's it," he said. "I'm not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that she made the complaint. And even if I was, I would not be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that it was knowingly false." 

It was this last part that stuck in the public craw. Bold as Ms Matthews's lawyer was, not even he had tried to argue that the complaint, as well as being signed by an impostor, was also not deliberately untrue. To have reasonable doubt about both of these things was impressively open-minded. 

Outside the courthouse, a small group of Carnita Matthews's supporters celebrated the verdict by shoving journalists, yodelling obscenities, and generally making you wonder how they would have behaved if the result had gone the other way. Matthews's lawyer, invited to condemn their conduct, said: "They're obviously happy about the result and they're expressing it in a way that's culturally appropriate to them." Mamdouh Habib appeared on TV to declare, triumphantly, that the racism of the police force had been proved. 

It was notable, though, that the broader Muslim community declined to rally around Ms Matthews. The whole thing was bad PR, especially for the burqa. There has never been any serious move in Australia to ban the burqa, and one doubts there ever will be. Conservative Christians have mounted the odd campaign against it, but they have tended to rely on the shallowest of arguments: namely, the suggestion that the veil might be used for nefarious purposes, such as robbing banks. Muslim spokespeople have always been able to reply, with some justice, that this is paranoid nonsense. Yet here was the defence exploiting, successfully, that same dubious theme: the burqa as disguise, as a cloak for crime. It was hard to see how anyone's opinion of the garment could have improved as a result of the case.

The Director of Public Prosecutions came under pressure to lodge a counter-   appeal. He didn't, and that decision was probably wise: the circus was in danger of becoming something nastier. But a sense of violation lingered. On talk radio there was even more rage than usual. Secular society  is capable of feeling humiliated too.

The government's announcement about face coverings, which came in early July, felt like a necessary putting-down of the foot. In a way the new laws are tangential to the Matthews case: no woman, at any point in the affair, refused to expose her face when asked. But the symbolism of the move was crucial. It was time for a gentle reassertion of common sense. 

Muslim groups welcomed the legislation. The symbolism of that was important too. The Council for Civil Liberties called it "a knee-jerk response", but they say that about everything — and anyway, in this case the metaphor was useful. After repeated applications of the hammer, it was encouraging to learn that our institutions did, after all, contain some sort of nerve.    

Meanwhile, Carnita Matthews's lawyer has filed an application for costs. These, he says, are likely to be "fairly modest".

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