August 24, 2009 / 10:52 AM / 8 years ago

Q+A-Does Malaysia caning herald a more Islamic state

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 24 (Reuters) - A Malaysian state is to proceed with the caning of a Muslim woman who drank alcohol once the holy month of Ramadan is over. [ID:nSP362899]

This would be the first time that a woman has been caned in this mainly Muslim country of 27 million people that is seen as a moderate state.

The sentencing has turned the spotlight on an Islamic legal system that runs alongside civil laws in the multi-ethnic country. It also comes at a time when influence of the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which wants to introduce an Islamic state, is growing.

Here are some questions and answers about the multi-ethnic Southeast Asian country’s Islamic laws.

WHEN IS SHARIA LAW APPLICABLE?

Malaysia has a dual legal system, with Malay-Muslims bound to Islamic family and criminal laws while civil laws apply to non-Muslims. Sharia courts are established in the nation’s 13 states and are independent of the federal legal system.

Malaysian experts say Islamic courts can pass sentences of not more than three years imprisonment, a fine of up to 5,000 ringgit ($1,426), and/or up to six strokes of the cane.

The PAS, in addition, legislated hudud laws calling for amputation, stoning and whipping for criminal offences in the northeastern states of Kelantan and Terengganu which it controlled in the 1990s. But the party failed to win federal government approval.

WHO ARE THE RELIGIOUS AUTHORITIES IN MALAYSIA?

Muslim religious authorities operate under the government-run Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM), enforcing Islamic or sharia law on the Muslim population.

JAKIM also carries out edicts or fatwas issued by the National Fatwa Council. It recent months the council has asked Muslims to stay away from yoga because of its Hindu origins, and forbidden women from wearing trousers. Although edicts are not legally binding, they are very influential in Malaysia. [ID:nKLR413796]

Working as moral police, JAKIM officers patrol parks looking for young unwed couples holding hands, raid nightclubs to catch Muslims drinking alcohol, stake out betting shops and fine Muslims who eat in public during the fasting month of Ramadan.

In 2006, Islamic officials mistakenly raided the apartment of a married American couple, both Christians, on suspicion of khalwat, or the Islamic crime of close proximity between unmarried couples. The government later apologised.

WHY CANING?

The last time a man was whipped under Islamic laws for drinking was about a decade ago, the Malaysian Shariah Lawyers Association said.

Islamic scholars say that in Koran, caning is prescribed as punishment for adultery, although in recent years, it has been seen by some scholars as a deterrent for a variety of other crimes viewed as abhorrent such as drinking and gambling.

Caning is also used in criminal courts in Malaysia for rape and drug trafficking and is the most severe punishment after the death penalty, law experts say. Illegal immigrants are also caned, and rights watchdog Amnesty said local authorities have whipped at least 34,000 people, between 2002 and 2008.

Reporting by Niluksi Koswanage; Editing by David Chance and Sanjeev Miglani

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