Kuala Lumpur: A Muslim woman sentenced to be caned for drinking beer has had her punishment commuted, in a surprising turnaround for a high-profile case that raised questions about Islamic laws intruding into personal matters in Malaysia.
Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, a mother of two, received a letter on Wednesday from the Pahang state Islamic department informing her that the state`s sultan has decided to spare her the caning, her lawyer, Adham Jamalullail, said on Thursday.
The order is likely to cool down a fiery debate over whether Islamic laws should intrude into people`s private lives in this Muslim-majority country. Many people had condemned the punishment, saying it shows conservative Islamists are gaining influence over the justice system.
Kartika, a former model and nurse, was sentenced last July. Had the punishment been carried out at the time, she would have been the first woman to be caned in Malaysia, where about 60 percent of the 28 million people are Muslims.
She pleaded guilty and did not appeal her sentence, but the punishment was halted at the last minute following an uproar in the media and among rights activists.
Three other Muslim women were caned this year for having sex out of wedlock, becoming the first Muslim women to be caned. Their cases did not draw as much attention because the caning was kept a secret until after it was done. Subsequently, the women themselves appeared before local media and said they deserved the punishment.
Adham said that "as a substitution for the caning, the sultan has ordered Kartika to perform community service for three weeks."
Sultan Ahmad Shah is the guardian of Islam in the state, and its titular head. Most of Malaysia`s 13 states are ruled by sultans who usually play a ceremonial role in governance but have the power to rule in Islamic matters.
Kartika`s father Shukarno Abdul Muttalib said she has been told to report to the Islamic department early Friday.
"We will abide by the order ... Kartika will go on with her life," he said.
Kartika was sentenced in July last year to six strokes of the cane and a fine of 5,000 ringgit (USD 1,400) for drinking beer in December 2007 at a beach resort in violation of Islamic laws. Islam prohibits Muslims from drinking alcohol.
Officials had said the caning would be very different to the corporal punishment administered on male criminals under secular civil laws. Drug offenders, kidnappers and others are caned with a thick rattan stick on bare buttocks that break the skin and leave lifelong scars.
Kartika`s punishment under Islamic laws would have been delivered with a thin cane on the back with her clothes on.
The sultan`s commutation of the sentence followed Kartika`s meeting with the Pahang crown prince last month.
Malaysia follows a dual-track justice system. Shariah laws apply to Muslims in all personal matters. Non-Muslims — Chinese, Indians, Sikhs and other minorities — are covered by civil laws, and are free to drink.
Only three states in Malaysia — Pahang, Perlis and Kelantan — impose caning for drinking alcohol. In the other 10 states it is punishable by a fine.