SUNGAI SIPUT, Aug 24 – A Muslim model sentenced to be caned for drinking beer won a surprise reprieve Monday when religious officials delayed her punishment until after the fasting month of Ramadan.
Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, 32, was sentenced by a religious court last month to six strokes, making her the first woman to face caning under Islamic law in Malaysia, a moderate Muslim-majority country.
She was taken into custody Monday from her family home in northern Perak state by religious officials who were to transport her to a jail outside Kuala Lumpur where the sentence was to be carried out.
But after travelling a short distance, the vehicle returned and she was abruptly freed.
"I am speechless," Kartika told reporters, adding that the Islamic officials had not told her whether she would be caned later. "I want to know what my status is. I want a black and white statement from them."
The mother-of-two has stared down religious authorities by saying she is ready to be caned, refusing to appeal against her sentence, and challenging them to cane her in public.
"I do not know in what situation I’m in. I’m clueless. I do not know if I am freed, I am in limbo," said the part-time model, who was dressed in a purple Muslim headscarf and a flowing traditional "baju kurung" outfit.
Sahfri Abdul Aziz, a legislator from Pahang in charge of religious affairs, said the punishment had been suspended on the order of the Attorney-General until after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which began last week.
"However, the sentence will remain the same," he said according to state media.
But a senior government official who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity suggested the reprieve could be a step towards burying the whole affair.
"Leave it to the sharia court, they know how to decide. The court has the power to revise the sentence and there are also laws that allow the sultan to pardon her," the top official said.
Human rights group Amnesty International has urged Malaysia to abolish the "cruel and degrading punishment" and critics have said the case threatens to damage Malaysia’s international standing.
Kartika’s father Shukarno Mutalib, 60, reacted angrily to the about-face and the confusion over whether the caning would go ahead, and said it would reflect badly on Islam, which forbids drinking alcohol.
"My daughter wants the sentence to be done. I’m afraid that people will mock the religion," he said. "Don’t make my daughter a toy to play with," he said.
Kartika, who has lived in neighbouring Singapore for many years, had pleaded guilty to drinking alcohol at a hotel nightclub.
Her case has caused a national sensation, and at her family’s village more than 50 supporters turned out and chanted "God is Great" and "There is no God except Allah."
"I have known Kartika since she was a small girl," said one 64-year-old villager, Wan Alawiah.
"She is a good girl and I’m sad she will be caned but I ask myself why Kartika is being caned when a lot of other Muslims drink. I feel she has been victimised," she said.
Alcohol is widely available in Malaysia but is forbidden for Muslim Malays, who make up 60 percent of the population. They can be fined, caned, or jailed for up to three years but prosecutions are extremely rare.
Malaysia, a multicultural country with large Chinese and Indian communities, has a dual-track legal system and sharia courts can try Muslims for religious and moral offences.
Islamic scholars have mostly backed the sentence, and said it would be carried out when Kartika was fully clothed and with a cane that is smaller and lighter than the heavy length of rattan used in criminal cases.