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Free Malaysia Today: No room for forgiveness, repentance in RUU 355 (26th November 2016)
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Sisters in Islam (SIS) unequivocally opposes the proposal to amend Act 355 (RUU 355) to increase punishment for shariah crimes to 30 years’ imprisonment, a RM100,000 fine and 100 lashes of the cane from the present limit of three years imprisonment, a RM5000 fine and six lashes of the cane.

RUU 355 is a bill that will potentially result in more injustices in the long run and paint a bad image of Islam as a punitive religion. The public deserves an explanation of the rationale behind the leap in expansion of punishment from the present limit to the proposed limit. Furthermore, how will the shariah court decide on the proportionality of punishment to be given out under the existing Shariah Criminal Offences Enactment (SCOE) of each state? Will the punishment of the crimes be the same or would they differ from state to state?

Under the existing Shariah Criminal Offences (Federal Territories) Act 1997 (SCOA) there are over 40 offences ranging from possession of religious publications contrary to Islamic Law to moral crimes such as khalwat (close proximity), both of which carry the maximum sentence of two years’ jail or a RM3,000 fine or both. With punishment as severe as 30 years’ jail, a RM100,000 fine and 100 lashes in RUU 355 how will the shariah courts be guided to determine that the punishment will not be disproportionate to the crime?

As it stands, the existing SCOE of each state has been implemented in a discriminatory fashion, often targeting minority groups of society and groups of a lower income.

For example, khalwat hotel raids have been largely concentrated in budget hotel areas and the process of these raids completely disregard one’s right to privacy and dignity. Muslim trans-women have been constantly targeted by religious authorities and inhumanely treated by being placed in male prisons, where they are then subject to sexual violence. How will RUU 355 ensure that further discrimination will not happen, once the bill is passed?

Bulldozing a law through parliament will not solve the present inconsistencies and conflict of jurisdiction between civil and shariah courts. While proponents of RUU 355 insist that the bill will not affect non-Muslims, reality shows that existing shariah laws are already impacting non-Muslims in Malaysia.

The unilateral conversion cases of Indira Gandhi and Deepa Subramaniam are just two examples of the far-reaching impact of the dual legal system in Malaysia. Indira’s case has been ongoing for seven years, yet only now discussions on reforming laws pertaining to unilateral conversion of minors have risen. SIS believes that it is irresponsible of politicians to dismiss the fears and concerns of non-Muslims in Malaysia, as they too are equal stakeholders in RUU 355.

The systemic weaknesses of shariah courts must be addressed, instead of focusing on increasing punishments. The status of shariah courts can be elevated by improving the implementation of the Islamic Family Law, which Muslim women have often complained is unjust to them. 2015 statistics compiled by SIS’ Telenisa service recorded that the second highest number of cases involved unpaid child maintenance, while the highest was child custody cases.

These cases often continue for years, the main reason being that the ex-husband does not show up to court. Despite this, the shariah courts rarely issue arrest warrants for the men who fail to show up in court, leaving Muslim women bearing the brunt of the injustice.

SIS calls for the state and other proponents of RUU 355 to focus on Islam’s message of forgiveness and repentance. Allah’s forgiveness and mercy (for both men and women) is a constant and recurring theme that is emphasised in the holy Qur’an as stated in Surah Al-Maidah (5:39) and Surah An-Nur (24:5) which read, “…those who afterward repent and amend their conduct, God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”

Why then are our lawmakers more focused on implementing harsher punishments, without providing space for forgiveness and repentance as promoted in Islam? As citizens, we deserve a proper explanation and justification from lawmakers on the effectiveness of retributive justice in reducing “shariah crimes” rather than a blanket explanation that existing punishments are not effective in deterring crimes.

What is abundantly clear is that this proposed legislation has become extremely politicised. The impact of all these political manoeuvrings have raised fears and created a divide between Malaysians.

We call upon all Malaysians, Muslims and non-Muslims alike to make your voices heard. Speak to your family, community, your leaders and express to them your concerns and reservations that this Bill proposes. This is a matter of national interest. All of us have a stake in this. It is time for the voices of the people to come together and reject a future that undermines our unity and threatens our way of life.

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