British Conservative politician Boris Johnson has been cleared of breaking his party's code of conduct with remarks he made about Muslim women wearing burqas.
The former Foreign Secretary wrote in his weekly column for the Daily Telegraph newspaper in August that women who choose to wear the full-face veil resemble "letter boxes" and "bank robbers." He also branded the conservative Islamic dress "oppressive."
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Johnson subsequently faced calls to apologize from angered Tories including party chairman Brandon Lewis, and his remarks triggered an investigation by an independent disciplinary panel.
"It is very clear that the language that Boris Johnson used to describe people's appearance has caused offense," Prime Minister Theresa May said in August in response to Johnson's comments. "It's not language I would have used and I think he was wrong to have used that language, and I agree with Brandon Lewis."
The five-strong panel of senior lawyers, chaired by Naomi Ellenbogen QC, cleared Johnson after deeming his remarks to be within his right to free speech, the Daily Telegraph reported.
According to the paper, the panel found that Johnson's language could be considered "provocative" but said it would be "unwise to censor excessively the language of party representatives or the use of satire to emphasize a viewpoint."
The ruling nevertheless drew sharp criticism from Muslim communities in the UK, with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) -- the UK's largest Muslim umbrella body -- expressing shock at the decision.
"Mr Johnson is not a satirist -- he is a Member of Parliament, and as such has a responsibility to set the tone for the rest of the UK to follow," the MCB said in a statement.
"In this case, it is the far right Islamophobes who have been empowered to follow his rhetoric."
The Conservative Party's code of conduct states that its representatives must "support equality of opportunity, diversity and inclusion" and "encourage and foster respect and tolerance."
The MCB nevertheless criticized the disciplinary panel for exonerating Johnson with its conclusion that the Conservative Party code of conduct does not override an individual's right to freedom of expression.
CNN has contacted the Conservative Party for comment.