KL court ruling ‘creates confusion over jurisdiction’

Recent verdict raises fears over eroding rights of minorities in Malaysia

(The Straits Times) – A CONFUSING apex court verdict that Malaysia's Muslim converts can seek divorce in the civil as well as syariah courts has resurrected non-Muslims' fears about their waning rights.

Many worry that the overlapping jurisdictions of the two courts may put non-Muslims at a disadvantage.

A top Christian leader, Reverend Wong Kim Kong, said: 'What happens if the civil court decides one thing and the syariah court decides another? Will the rights of the non-Muslims be protected then?'

Rev Wong is secretary-general of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, an umbrella body of about 3,000 churches nationwide.

Thursday's verdict failed to provide a clear indication on when citizens should seek redress in civil or syariah courts, he told The Straits Times.

Ms Fong Po Kuan, an opposition lawmaker from the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party, said the country's highest court missed an opportunity to clarify the contentious issue of jurisdiction.

'It (the verdict) has left behind the unresolved problems of jurisdictions of the different courts,' said Ms Fong, a law graduate from the International Islamic University in Selangor. She is also familiar with syariah laws.

'I am not entirely convinced that the rights of the non-Muslims will be protected following the verdict,' she said.

On Thursday, the Federal court ruled that those who marry under civil laws would have to seek divorce in the civil courts even if one of the spouses has converted to Islam.

But in a majority decision, the three-men bench also ruled that Muslim-converts can seek divorce in the syariah court, although the rulings made by the syariah court will not be binding on the civil court.

Several lawyers involved in the case have admitted that the verdict was confusing and they wanted to read the written judgment first.

The Federal court threw out the divorce petition of a clerk, Mrs R. Subashini, 29, from her Muslim-convert husband, on a technicality.

Mrs Subashini also lost her appeal against a lower court's ruling that her estranged husband had the right to convert their two-year-old son's religion from Hinduism to Islam.

The husband, Mr T. Saravanan, 32, who converted to Islam in May last year, has already converted his older son, who is four years old.

Malaysia has a parallel legal system, with the syariah courts hearing mostly family cases involving Muslims. The civil court system is for the rest of the cases.

Of late, civil court judges have declined to hear several high-profile Islam-related cases. These were referred to the syariah courts, giving them more jurisdiction than they otherwise would have.

In 2005, a civil court judge refused to hear a body-tussle case between the religious authorities and the widow of a Hindu-born army commando, said to have converted to Islam prior to his death. His family had denied the conversion claim.

The judge declined because the case involved Islam. The syariah court subsequently ruled that the body should be buried according to Muslim rites, sparking outrage from the Hindu community and further straining the country's inter-ethnic ties.

In Malaysia, non-Muslims cannot appear before syariah courts, leaving them with no avenue to fight certain cases.