SUNGAI SIPUT, Malaysia (Reuters) - Religious authorities in Malaysia postponed on Monday the caning of a Muslim woman convicted of drinking alcohol until after the holy month of Ramadan.
The planned caning of 32-year-old mother of two Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno has drawn criticism from rights groups concerned by the rise of Islamic laws in this traditionally moderate country, even though Kartika had accepted the punishment.
Earlier on Monday it appeared she might have been freed when a court order that would have transferred her to a prison where she was to have been caned was ruled invalid by an Islamic justice official.
Kartika was released from a van that would have transported her to the prison in Pahang state in eastern mainland Malaysia where she committed the offence that she admits and for which she wanted to be punished in public.
"The punishment has not been canceled, it was postponed because of Ramadan," Pahang state Executive Councillor for Religion, Missionary Work and Unity, Mohamad Sahfri Abdul Aziz, told Reuters.
Ramadan, a time of fasting and contemplation for Muslims, started on Saturday and lasts a month and Mohamad Sahfri said that the decision was taken after consultations with Malaysia's Attorney-General.
Kartika, who has admitted that she drank beer at a hotel in Pahang in December 2007, said that she still accepted the sentence but wanted to be treated fairly.
"I am shocked but I remain steadfast with my decision," Kartika, wearing a cream-colored, traditional long Malay dress decorated with flowers and a headscarf, told reporters after the state announced it would push ahead with the caning.
"All I want now is to know my true situation and do not treat me like a football," said Kartika who had worked as a nurse in Singapore until her trial.
While caning is a common punishment under Malaysia's civil code, as it is in neighboring Singapore, no woman has been caned and the severity of the punishment has generated criticism that this modern majority-Muslim state was becoming more hardline.
It is also a sensitive political issue where Malays, who account for 55 percent of the 27 million population, must be Muslim. A Malay nationalist party is the main party in the coalition that has ruled the country for 51 years, but it is battling an opposition Islamic party for their votes.
"There is a general push toward the implementation of sharia (Islamic) laws," Osman Bakar Deputy Chief Executive of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies Malaysia told Reuters.
"It's too simplistic to say that the government is becoming more Islamicized to gain more votes, more Malay support."
The National Front coalition, led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), stumbled to its worst ever losses in national and state elections in 2008.
In a sign of sensitivity over the issue ahead of a state by-election this month that pits the government against the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) in a majority Muslim state, the government's minister for women withdrew a statement in which she labeled the punishment as "harsh" for a woman.
Former premier Mahathir Mohamad, a frequent critic of the West who ruled Malaysia for 22 years until 2003, said there was no need for Islam or Islamic countries to apologize.
"The news of the caning has gone all around the world," he said on his popular web log (www.chedet.co.cc).
"I do not know if this gives a good or bad image to Islam. As a Muslim, we do not have to care too much about the view of others toward Islam when doing what the religion calls for."
Additional reporting by Niluksi Koswanage; Writing by David Chance; Editing by Jeremy Laurence