Malaysia’s highest court to rule on powers of Islamic courts over non-Muslims

(AP) – A ruling by Malaysia's highest court in a high-profile marital dispute could help determine whether Islamic courts have the power to decide the fate of non-Muslims, a deeply divisive issue in this mainly Muslim nation.

The Federal Court is expected to rule Thursday in the case of Subashini Rajasingam, a 29-year-old ethnic Indian Hindu who is trying to prevent her Muslim convert husband from seeking a divorce in a Shariah court and to stop him from converting their younger son to Islam. Subashini is not contesting the divorce, but wants it to be decided in a civil court.

"We are not challenging the authority of the Shariah courts," said Subashini's lawyer K. Shanmuga. "What we are saying is that in this dispute, because it deals with a non-Muslim marriage, and because one of the parties is a non-Muslim, the Shariah court does not have jurisdiction," he told The Associated Press.

The case is being closely watched because it could set a precedent for inter-religious disputes and minority rights in Malaysia where the Buddhist, Christian and Hindu minorities have voiced fears that courts are unfairly asserting the supremacy of Islam.

Muslims, who are 60 percent of the population, are governed by Islamic courts while non-Muslims go to civil courts to settle family, marriage and other personal disputes. But the law is vague on which court has the authority to deal with disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims, especially within a family.

Civil courts have generally steered clear of taking a position in such cases, allowing Shariah courts to take the lead. This has not only raised questions about freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution but has also strained racial relations in this multiethnic country, which has enjoyed largely peaceful race relations for nearly four decades.

Thursday's verdict "is very important in order to appreciate the interrelationship between civil courts and the Shariah courts, particularly so in cases involving conversions of spouses," said Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, a human rights lawyer who has helped fight several such cases including Subashini's.

"It will also have an important bearing on the right of parents to unilaterally convert their children to a particular faith," he told the AP.

Subashini, a clerk, married Saravanan Thangathoray in a Hindu wedding in 2002. The couple have two sons, Dharvin and Sharvind, now aged 4 and 2.

Saravanan told his wife in 2006 that he had converted to Islam. Subashini attempted suicide and was hospitalized. When she returned home, Saravanan had left with Dharvin, whom he claims has also converted to Islam.

Saravanan, by then known as Muhammad Shafi Saravanan Abdullah, filed for divorce and custody rights over the children in a Shariah court in May 2006, and the right to convert Sharvind.

Subashini separately filed for divorce and custody rights in the Kuala Lumpur High Court, and also asked it to prevent her husband from seeking relief in the Shariah Court. The court refused.

The Court of Appeal also ruled in March this year that Subashini should argue her case in the Shariah Court. The ruling outraged civil rights groups, who say Subashini's chances of blocking a conversion would be slim in the Shariah Court.

She then went to the Federal Court, which told Muhammad Shafi not to approach the Shariah court until it has ruled on the matter.