Caning for beer fuels debate in Malaysia

A Malaysian Muslim woman who will be caned next week for drinking beer is fuelling debate about tolerance in this multi-racial country.

Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno will be the first Malaysian woman to be caned under Islamic laws applicable to Malaysia’s Muslims, who account for 60 per cent of the 27-million population.

She said the 20-month ordeal added to her distress, but she respected the law banning alcohol for Muslims and was determined to go through with the punishment — six strokes of the cane. The mother of two, who also paid a 5,000 ringgit ($1,420) fine, asked for the punishment, usually carried out in a closed prison, to be done in public. “I never cried when I was sentenced by the judge. I told myself, alright then, let’s get on with it,” Kartika said.

Islam is the official religion in this country that has a dual-track legal system, with Islamic criminal and family laws applicable to the Muslims alongside civil legislation.

Opinions are divided about the punishment Kartika faces under Islamic laws.

Amnesty International criticised on Friday the punishment as “degrading” and said the caning comes at a time when the role of Islam in Malaysia was assuming greater importance.

One of the main opposition parties wants Malaysia, which has ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities who are not Muslim, to become an Islamic state with sharia laws on punishment.

Despite the prohibition, Muslims can be found consuming alcohol in bars and nightclubs openly in cities such as the capital, Kuala Lumpur, where attitudes are more relaxed.

Kartika, a Malaysian citizen married to a Singaporean, is a Singapore resident. Religious authorities caught her drinking at a hotel in Kuantan, the state capital of the central Malaysian state of Pahang, on December 11, 2007. Kartika, who said she has yet to receive any response to her request for a public caning, is due to be taken to prison in central Selangor state beginning on Monday for one week, during which her sentence will be carried out.

She will be fully clothed and kneeling and struck on the backside with a small thin cane using moderate force.

Four court appearances over the offence forced her to quit her full time hospital job and she has since had to rely on part-time modelling jobs.

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