A Malaysian state’s decision to amend its Islamic laws to allow public caning drew a backlash from civil rights groups and lawmakers on Thursday, but a senior government official said it would be applicable only for Muslims in that state.
Lawmakers in Kelantan, which is governed by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), on Wednesday amended the state’s penal code and approved, among other changes, caning in public for punishments required by Sharia courts.
“I have not received details on the tabling of the bill and of the amendments, but I feel what they’ve done should be seen in the context of this law being only for Muslims in Kelantan,” Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told journalists Thursday.
He said the amendments would require the consent of Sultan Muhammad V, the state’s 47-year-old constitutional head.
Kelantan, the only one of Malaysia’s 13 states and three federal territories ruled by the faith-based PAS, is 436 km (272 miles) northeast of the nation’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. About 97 percent of its 1.68 million residents are Muslims and PAS has controlled the state government for 43 years, with an uninterrupted rule since 1990.
PAS-led amendments are testing Malaysia’s secular constitution, human rights advocates and leaders of minority groups said in reacting to the news out of Kelantan.
“PAS is setting a very dangerous trend of riding rough over the laws of the land by disregarding the federal Constitution as the supreme law of the land,” Ti Lian Ker, the chairman of the religious harmony bureau at the Malaysian Chinese Association, an ethnic Chinese party in the ruling coalition, said in a statement.
Siti Kassim, a leading human rights lawyer, told BenarNews that PAS-led amendments would not stop at state level.
“This is their next big push … it’s now under way,” she said, referring to the Islamic faith-based party’s push last year to introduce a tough Islamic penal code.
‘In accordance with the religion’
Malaysia’s constitution provides a unique dual justice system – with criminal cases dealt with under federal law and Islamic courts handling religious issues and family-related cases, such as divorce, custody and adultery.
In predominantly Islamic and religiously conservative Kelantan, where there are no movie theaters, Muslim women are required to cover their entire body when appearing in public – except for the face and hands up to the wrists.
Officials there announced in July 2016 a new statewide regulation that took effect in January and requires female employees at commercial establishments, such as fast-food outlets, supermarkets and stores, to cover themselves in the workplace.
Malaysia, a multiracial country of 32 million people, about 60 percent of whom are Muslims, already practices canings for Sharia matters, but only in prisons, never in public.
“However, with this amendment, the sentencing can be carried out in public or prison depending on the court’s decision,” the New Straits Times quoted the state’s deputy chief minister, Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah, as saying on Wednesday. “This is in accordance with the religion, as in Islam the sentencing must be done in public.”
The current Sharia law allows six strokes of the cane for illicit sex, alcohol consumption and sodomy – and three for intent for illicit sex. It is not clear what crimes would lead to public caning, but legal experts said it likely would include adultery and other crimes, depending on the court’s decision.
Last year, PAS raised tensions nationwide when it introduced a bill proposing to increase the punishments meted out by Sharia courts throughout the country, allowing judges to impose whipping of 80 to 100 strokes for those found guilty of drinking alcohol and engaging in illicit sex.
Only Muslims are subject to Sharia laws and officials, including Prime Minister Najib Razak, had emphasized that non-Muslims would not be affected by the proposed measure, which is expected to be debated in parliament when it reconvenes later this month.
But the bill angered civil rights groups and lawmakers who expressed fears it would contradict the country’s secular Constitution.
Sisters in Islam, a civil movement that promotes women’s rights within the religious framework, condemned the latest amendments passed in Kelantan, saying public canings would be tantamount to “degradation of human dignity and stigmatization, rather than rehabilitation.”
“The Kelantan State government’s decision to enforce public caning in the state is a deplorable form of humiliation and shaming,” Sisters in Islam said in a statement.
Former Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin also slammed the amendments, saying Malaysia would now have a new tourist attraction: public caning.
“This would be Malaysia’s latest tourism product to be marketed overseas … to allow non-Muslims especially those from developed countries to witness such ancient and barbaric punishment meted out in a democratic and modern country like Malaysia,” he said in a blog post on Thursday.
However, an official from Aceh, the westernmost province in neighboring Indonesia where Sharia law is in force and frequent public canings have taken place near mosques since 2005, supported Kelantan’s move.
“The essence of public caning is for the people who are watching it, so that they do not commit acts prohibited by the religion,” Teungku Faisal Ali, director of the Acehnese chapter of one of Indonesia’s largest and most influential Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama, told BenarNews.
He said representatives from the Kelantan state government had visited Aceh to witness public canings.
Protests and criticism from civil groups are expected, just as in the case of Aceh when it had started, he said. But commitment from all parties in the province eventually allowed Aceh “to apply punishment promoted by our religion.”
Labid Balang in Kuching, Sarawak, and Nurdin Hassan in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, contributed to this report.