The case of Maniam Moorthy, a former commando who was part of a Mount Everest expedition, is at the heart of a raging debate on minority rights and conflict of power between civil courts and the Islamic Shariah Court in this Muslim-majority country.
Moorthy’s body was taken over in December by Islamic authorities after the Shariah Court ruled he had converted to Islam before his death on 20 December.
Moorthy apparently never informed his family of the conversion, and his wife Kaliammal Sinnasamy failed to convince the civil High Court to give her custody of the body. Being a non-Muslim, she couldn’t file a petition in the Shariah Court.
The High Court said it has no jurisdiction over the Shariah Court, implying that non-Muslims had no recourse to justice in a dispute with Muslims because they could neither appeal to the Islamic justice system nor the civil system.
Kaliammal petitioned the Court of Appeal on Tuesday saying the High Court had erred in concluding it didn’t have jurisdiction to determine the validity of conversions to Islam.
“This is a public interest case and the people want to know the jurisdiction of the civil court on conversion,” Kaliammal’s lawyer M Manoharan was quoted as saying by the New Straits Times newspaper on Wednesday.
Kaliammal hopes to exhume the body – if she wins the appeal – and perform a Hindu cremation.
Badawi has promised to review
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the Malaysian Prime Minister, has promised to review any unfair laws, but has refused to consider constitutional provisions on the jurisdiction of the civil court over the Shariah Court despite its ambiguities.
The ambiguity was demonstrated on Tuesday when the Shariah Court ruled the body of Nyonya Tahir, an 89-year-old ethnic Malay who was a Muslim by birth, should be handed over to her children to be buried according to Buddhist rites. She died last week after 70 years of marriage to an ethnic Chinese Buddhist.
In passing the judgment, the court rejected an appeal by Islamic authorities for custody of the body for an Islamic burial.
An advocacy group for religious minorities said the verdict showed the Islamic court is inconsistent in its protection of religious minorities, and that the Moorthy and Nyonya cases highlighted contradictions and weaknesses in Malaysian law.
Religion is one of the most sensitive issues in Malaysia. Nearly 60% of the country’s 26 million people are ethnic Malay Muslims, while the large ethnic Chinese and Indian minority communities mostly practise Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism.