Malaysia: Proposed Amendment of Sharia Courts Act a ‘Ploy,’ Critics Charge

S. Adie Zul
Kuala Lumpur
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160602-MY-sharia-620.jpg Singaporean Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno is pictured at the Sharia Court in Kuantan, in Malaysia’s Pahang state, where she was fined 5,000 ringgit ($U.S. 1,412) and sentenced to six strokes of the cane after pleading guilty to consuming alcohol at a local nightclub, July 20, 2009.

A move to strengthen the Sharia court system in Malaysia is a political ploy to win votes for the ruling coalition and divert attention from pressing issues, critics say.

Others worry that the move, if implemented, could erode human rights in the country or undermine national unity.

The Barisan Nasional coalition is using this to distract public attention away from a financial scandal over state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which has mired Prime Minister Najib Razak in corruption allegations, or other issues that have dominated domestic headlines, said the head of a prominent civil society group.

“Suddenly, the public and opposition’s attention is swerved to the proposed bill and we suddenly stop discussing about alleged mismanagement at 1MDB and other misconduct in the government,” Sevan Doraisamy, executive director of Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram), told BenarNews.

As a result, Sevan said, Malaysians are now debating whether a proposed amendment to the Sharia Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act of 1965 marks a first step toward introducing the Islamic penal code known as Hudud. It sets punishments that include amputation of the hand for theft and stoning for illicit sexual relations.

The existing law gives Malaysia’s states power to set up sharia courts with jurisdiction over Muslim family law, Muslim property law and other matters that are not covered by the country’s criminal code. The proposed amendment would authorize sharia judges to impose punishments of up to 100 strokes of the cane for illicit sex and up to 80 strokes for consumption of alcohol, according to a group of NGOs.

“This issue should not be labeled as an issue of Islam versus non-Muslims or hudud law issue, but should be seen as an initiative to improve the [Sharia] Court as a judicial system that is recognized by the constitution,” local newspaper Utusan Malaysia quoted Yusri Mohamed, president of the Islamic Da’wah Foundation Malaysia and a supporter of the bill, as saying this week.

‘A gimmick’

The debate was spurred by a Barisan Nasional cabinet minister’s move last week to fast-track the proposed amendment for parliamentary debate, which is being pushed by the faith-based Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

According to Chong Eng, a politician with the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), the move is “a gimmick” by Barisan to win support for upcoming by-elections. These will be held to fill two parliamentary seats on the states of Selangor and Perak, which were vacated when the incumbents were killed in a helicopter crash in Sarawak last month.

“I suspect that PAS has struck some kind of cooperation with BN to go into the battle, knowing well they are battling with the Pakatan Harapan opposition block in the by-elections,” Chong told BenarNews.

DAP and PAS were partners in an opposition coalition but the bloc broke up last year when they feuded over efforts by the Islamic party to implement hudud in the northern state of Kelantan.

A threat to the nation’s fabric?

Although the bill’s supporters say that the punishments outlined by it would apply only to Muslims, other critics nevertheless warn that it could fuel tensions among Malaysia’s different racial groups, divide the country, and impinge on human rights.

In an interview with the Star Online, a former chief of national police on Thursday suggested that PAS was using the bill to amend the Sharia law as part of a long-term push for implementing hudud nationwide.

“This is not a good sign. It can jeopardize our national integration. I feel the government should be firm and stress that hudud cannot be implemented in this country because it contravenes the Federal Con­stitution,” former Inspector General of Police Rahim Noor told the newspaper.

“This is a big deal and a question of criminal justice. It has an impact on our spirit of togetherness because all citizens should be treated equally under the law,” he added.

Elsewhere, the Malaysian feminist group Joint Action Group for Gender Quality (JAG), issued a statement calling on the government to be transparent in legislating the proposed amendment.

“We are specifically concerned that the amendments may lead to a significant degradation of human rights,” JAG said. “We are of the opinion that [Sharia] laws have been applied in a discriminatory fashion, often victimizing the minority sects of our society.”


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