Islamic officials release woman held for caning

(AP) KARAI, Malaysia — Islamic officials Monday abruptly released a Muslim model scheduled to be caned this week for drinking beer, in an unexpected twist for a defendant who was expected to become the first Malaysian woman to face the corporal punishment.

Two female and one male officials came to the house of Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno in northern Malaysia on Monday and took her away in a van on what was supposed to be a four-hour road journey to a prison near Kuala Lumpur, the country's main city.

But they returned after about 30 minutes and said they had received "instructions from the higher powers" to release her, said Kartika's father, Shukarno Abdul Muttalib. The officials said that "for now, the sentence cannot be carried out," Shukarno said.

It was not immediately clear whether Kartika would be taken back into custody later. Islamic officials declined to comment.

Shukarno said he and Kartika would head to a district police station to file statements about her abrupt release. He said they were confused about what had happened and were worried that officials might later accuse his daughter of running away from them.

Officials had said earlier that Kartika, a 32-year-old mother of two, would be caned sometime during the week but no specific date was set. Amnesty International had condemned the decision, and many critics had said the caning would harm Malaysia's reputation as a moderate Muslim country.

Kartika was arrested in a raid for drinking beer at a hotel lounge last year for breaching the Muslim-majority country's Shariah law, which forbids Muslims to consume alcohol.

She was sentenced by a Shariah court in July in what was considered a warning to other Muslims to abide by religious laws. Kartika did not appeal and said she was willing to be caned.

Dressed in a full-length cream-and-red satin gown and a head scarf, Kartika emerged from her house and walked past a group of about 50 local Muslims who said prayers for her.

After a last kiss with her 5-year-old daughter, she got into the silver van along with her sister and the Islamic officials.

She did not speak to the horde of media assembled outside the house in the countryside, about 5 miles (7 kilometers) from Karai town in the northern Perak state.

In an interview with The Associated Press last week, Kartika had said she wants to be caned because "I want to respect the law."

The law provides for a three-year prison term and caning for Muslims caught drinking, but most offenders are fined. Drinking is legal for non-Muslims.

Islamic authorities had insisted that the purpose of the caning is to educate rather than punish. They say the rattan cane supposed to be used on Kartika would be smaller and lighter than the one used for men and that she will remain clothed. The prison official who canes her is also supposed to use very little force.

Men convicted of civil crimes such as rape and bribery in Malaysia are caned on their bare buttocks, breaking the skin and leaving permanent scars.