Malaysian Indian couples’ cases test conversion laws

May 3rd, 2009 - 3:39 pm ICT by IANS  

Kuala Lumpur, May 3 (IANS) A government decision as well as Malaysian laws related to conversion are poised to be tested by the country’s highest court, thanks to two cases of estranged ethnic Indian couples.
The federal court will hear on a Court of Appeal’s decision given two weeks ago involving the custody and conversion of the sons of S. Shamala and Muhamad Ridzwan, earlier known as Jeyaganesh C. Mogarajah.

Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s cabinet decided last month that children should be raised in the religion at the time of their parents’ marriage, even if one later converted to another religion.

The decision, which affects the religious minorities in multi-religious Malaysia, has been widely welcomed.

The apex court’s ruling are expected to show direction to the government on how to amend the laws to provide clear interpretation on matters related to such conversion cases, according to those in the legal circles, New Straits Times reported.

The cabinet’s decision is seen by many as a move to alleviate the frustration of certain parents whose children had been converted to another religion without their knowledge, consent or against their will, Bernama, the official news agency reported Sunday.

The cabinet decision on conversions came on another case of an ethnic Indian family.

M. Indira Gandhi, a mother of three, last month won a high court ruling against her husband, K. Patmahathan who converted to Islam. He had snatched away their daughter and forcibly taken away the documents of his children with the intention of converting them.

Razak, who took office last month, strongly advocates “1Malaysia”, a concept urging Malaysians to refrain from viewing matters from narrow ethnic perspectives.

The Court of Appeal has decided to refer five constitutional questions to the apex court before hearing the appeals as it wants the federal court to adjudicate on conflicting Islamic and civil laws governing conversion and the freedom of the practice of religion.

In the Shamala-Muhamad Ridzwan case, both relied on civil and sharia courts. Under the two law systems, both were granted custody of the two sons from their 11-year-old marriage. Seven years later, they still do not have closure on the case.

Some quarters are concerned that without any amendments to the existing and related laws, the cabinet’s decision may not be helpful.

As pointed out by Bar Council president Ragunath Kesavan, the cabinet directive is a policy statement that requires amendments to existing laws for its full realisation.

“The relevant legislation must be immediately amended in order to fully implement this directive without further delay,” he said.

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