PUTRAJAYA • Malaysia's Court of Appeal, in a majority decision yesterday, ruled that issues regarding conversions to Islam are exclusively the jurisdiction of the country's Islamic courts, in a move that raised anew concerns about justice for non-Muslims.
The three-panel judge was deciding on the government's appeal against kindergarten teacher M. Indira Gandhi, who had previously obtained a decision by the High Court in Ipoh to quash the conversion certificates of her three children.
The Hindu children were converted to Islam by Ms Indira's former husband K. Patmanathan, who had become a Muslim and taken the name of Muhammad Riduan Abdullah.
Justice Balia Yusof Wahi and Justice Badariah Sahamid, who formed the majority in the 2-1 decision, said that whether a person was a Muslim or not could be decided only by the Syariah Court.
"Having heard the submission from all parties and having considered the plethora of cases submitted before us, we are of the majority view in this court that, taking the subject matter approach, it is beyond the shadow of doubt that whether a person is Muslim or not falls strictly under the Syariah Court," Justice Balia, who chaired the panel, was quoted as saying by the Malay Mail Online (MMO) news site.
In his dissenting decision, Justice Hamid Sultan Abu Backer said the Perak Islamic law enactment allowed that cases of religious conversions could be questioned by a civil court. He added that for a non-Muslim child to utter the Muslim declaration of faith, the minor must apply to the state religious department accompanied by a parent's consent, which he said did not happen in the case of Ms Indira's children, MMO said.
Malaysia operates parallel civil and Islamic courts, with cases involving Islam often raising tensions when they involve non-Muslims as there is a concern that they would not get a just decision in an Islamic court.
In April 2009, Mr Riduan had taken away their daughter Prasana Diksa, then 11 months old, and converted her to Islam. The man also converted their two sons - Tevi Darsiny, then 12, and Karan Dinish, then 11. The two boys remained with their mother.
In October that year, Mr Riduan obtained a Syariah Court order that awarded him custody of the three children. In a custody battle that ensued, the Ipoh High Court granted Ms Indira full custody of all three children. In March 2010, Mr Riduan was ordered to return Prasana to Ms Indira.
In July 2013, Ms Indira won a four-year legal battle to quash the conversion certificates of her three children. But this has now been cancelled by the appeals court decision. Ms Indira might next appeal to the highest court in Malaysia, the Supreme Court.
Reacting to the decision yesterday, Ms Indira said: "I am very disappointed and I want this to end. It's been dragging for so many years and I have no clue after this, what's going to happen to my children? When am I going to see my daughter? It's been seven years and it's like I cannot get justice in my own Malaysia."
Said lawyer Philip Koh, who was holding a watching brief for the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism: "This is a sad day for minority faith communities."
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK