The verdict of caning of a Malaysian woman for drinking a beer in violation of Islamic law underscores the tensions between Kuala Lumpur’s desire to promote Malaysia as a moderate Muslim society and the increasingly tough actions taken by local religious police and courts.
Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno was sentenced to six strokes of the cane for consuming alcohol in public at a hotel bar in Pahang, and if the punishment goes ahead as planned this week, Ms. Kartika will become the first woman in Malaysia to be caned under Islamic law.
Malaysian civil courts have outlawed caning as punishment for women.
Judges in Islamic courts are not bound to mandatory sentences in cases like Ms. Kartika's, because they are expected to exercise good judgment and a sense of proportion. Instead, the judge chose the most severe punishment for a first-time offender, possibly to send a message at the start of Ramadan. He could have issued a fine or a short jail sentence.
Judge Datuk Ismail Yahya, one of Malaysia's chief sharia judges, added his voice to the debate on Sunday, cautioning that the punishment ran contrary to the law.
"Kartika can sue. This is because her detention, and subsequently the whipping, is illegal," he was quoted by Malaysia's New Straits Times as saying.
However, both the government and opposition politicians have been reluctant to speak out on this issue. Mr Najib, the country’s prime minister, does not want to alienate ethnic Malay voters when support has been on the rise for the conservative Islamic party of Malaysia (PAS), which is part of the three-party opposition alliance.
Farish Noor, of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, believes that the caning of Ms Kartika is “a sign of what is to come” as Umno tries to appear more Islamic than PAS in appealing to the Muslim Malay majority.
Ms. Kartika has expressed no intention of avoiding her punishment.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, she confided that she had accepted the punishment at least partly to avoid what could be the two-year legal process of an appeal.
Malaysia, a multicultural country with large Chinese and Indian communities, has a dual-track legal system and sharia courts can try Muslims for religious and moral offences.
Al-Jazeera, Malaysia caning case sparks debate, 23 August 2009, http://english.aljazeera.net/news/asia-pacific/2009/08/20098237331248849...
Financial Times, Caning case exposes Malaysia tensions, 21 August 2009, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/d7cd7652-8e69-11de-87d0-00144feabdc0.html
The Straits Times, Beer-drinking model prays, 23 August 2009, http://www.straitstimes.com/Breaking%2BNews/SE%2BAsia/Story/STIStory_420...
The Wall Street Journal, Caning in Malaysia , 23 August 2009, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142405297020488440457436755163098456...