A bill which would allow certain punishments mandated by the sharia criminal code (called hudud punishments) to be implemented in Kelantan State in Malaysia is coming before the Malaysian National Assembly for a vote. The bill would amend article 355 of the Malaysian federal constitution and allow increased jurisdiction for sharia courts.
The bill would impact Kelantan State in northern Malaysia, the country’s most religious state and the political base for the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
At the moment syariah (sharia) courts in Malaysia have jurisdiction over family law as well as over limited matters relating to Islamic observance, including fasting during Ramadan and apostasy. The courts only have jurisdiction over Muslims, something that would not change should this new bill become law.
The powers of the court vary by state, but they are subordinated to the federal government.
The government stressed that the new bill, if passed, would not implement hudud punishments wholesale, but would be a minor alteration to the existing state of affairs.
"I would like to state that it's not for the implementation of hudud. It's just to give the sharia courts enhanced punishments. From six-strokes caning to a few more," Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told a news conference in May after announcing in May that the bill would come before parliament, according to CNN.
"It applies only to certain offenses and this comes under the jurisdiction of the shariah court and is only applicable to the Muslims,” he said as reported by ABC. “It has nothing to do with non-Muslims."
However, comments by a leading PAS figure suggest a different motive. “Among the mandate from the people is to try to establish the Islamic system here, including the Islamic criminal law,” PAS executive council member Mohd Fadzi told the press, according to ABC.
Leaders from non-Muslim parties — the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress — strongly slammed the bill and threatened to leave the coalition government should the bill go through.
Human rights activists are worried that the bill could lead to brutal punishments and separate punishments for different groups of people rather than one law for all. “If you commit a wrongdoing, your punishment cannot be different from another person. You have to be fair,” Chandra Muzaffar, president of the International Movement of a Just World told CNN. “If two people people commit robbery, one gets his hand chopped off and the other doesn't, it isn't right.”
Some analysts suspect the move is in attempt to shore up support for Razak’s party among Malay Muslims, while others say it is an attempt to distract from a major corruption scandal that had embroiled the President.
If fully implemented, hudud punishments include the death penalty for apostasy, adultery and homosexuality, amputation of hands for theft and caning or whipping for other offenses.