Create legislation to ensure both parents provide consent for child conversions, lawyers say

S. Deepa speaks to members of the media at the Federal Court in Putrajaya. — Picture by Yusoff Mat Isa
S. Deepa speaks to members of the media at the Federal Court in Putrajaya. — Picture by Yusoff Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 15 — Unilateral conversion need not be criminalised as suggested by MCA Youth, lawyers said today, but instead ought to be appropriately legislated and enforced by religious officers to ensure that minors are not secretly converted by just one parent.

Civil liberties lawyer Syahredzan Johan said all that was necessary to prevent interfaith custody battles when one spouse unilaterally converts minors without the knowledge of the other was legislation requiring both parents to provide consent.

“We need to enact legislation to state that the religion of minors must be determined by both parents, not just one parent. Not everything must be criminalised,” he said via text message to Malay Mail Online.

Lawyers for Liberty campaign coordinator Melissa Sasidaran added that criminalising unilateral conversions is no solution and instead, the burden should be on religious authorities to ensure that both parents sign on when converting their children.

“Burden should lie on the religious authorities to make sure consent of both parents especially new converts is obtained before converting the children.

“More so after Deepa’s FC ruling, religious authorities must be stringent and take responsibility to ensure that unilateral conversion does not happen nor allow any party to circumvent any law in order to deny justice to the other,” she said in a text message to Malay Mail Online, using the acronym for Federal Court.

She was referring to the case of S. Deepa, who, after a four year battle, was only given custody of one of her two children by the Federal Court after her Muslim-convert ex-husband Izwan Abdullah, unilaterally converted their children without her consent.

Although she was initially given custody of both children in April 2013, her ex-husband snatched her son two days later and justified the snatching with a 2012 Shariah Court order that granted him custody of the two children after he had converted them to Islam unilaterally although the civil courts later overturned this.

The Federal Court also ruled that matters involving custody or divorce in civil marriages should only be handled by the civil courts and not the Shariah Court, unless both husband and wife are Muslims.

Indira Gandhi at Court of Appeal, Putrajaya, December 30, 2015. ― Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Indira Gandhi at Court of Appeal, Putrajaya, December 30, 2015. ― Picture by Saw Siow Feng

Similarly, the ex-husband of Indira Gandhi, Muhammad Riduan Abdullah (formerly known as K. Pathmanathan), had in 2009 converted the couple’s three children — then aged 12 years old, 11 years old, and 11 months old — to Islam without their presence or Indira’s knowledge, just six days before he obtained a custody order for all three in the Shariah court on April 8, 2009.

Muhammad Riduan had also snatched away the youngest child Prasana Diksa in 2009 ― now aged seven ― and kept her away from Indira since then, despite the latter winning custody of all three children in the civil courts.

Criminalising unilateral conversions was simply one way of handling this issue, Shah Alam MP Khalid Samad told Malay Mail Online, but the suggestion did not address the murky jurisdiction between the civil courts and Shariah courts, with him reiterating the need for a special court in cases like these.

“The Muslim parent can still go to Shariah court, with this there is still clash. The civil court will have one decision, the Shariah court will have another decision, which law is to be followed, that is the issue.

“In cases like this go to special court where both legal system are represented and they can give both sides of story,” he said, adding that another option would even be to have children decide on their own religion once they turn 18.

Bukit Mertajam MP Steven Sim, however, rebuked Putrajaya for allowing such interfaith custody battles to occur in the first place due to their lack of follow-through in enforcing a seven-year-old Cabinet decision.

“In 2009, the Cabinet released a directive stating that children in such marriages should remain in the religion of the parents at the time of marriage.

“Why can’t the government at least commit to these instruments? All these showed that even the government has recognised this long-suffering issue which families face but has lacked the political will so far to take more drastic actions for whatever reason,” he said in a text message to Malay Mail Online, referring to a Cabinet decision stating that children cannot be converted to another religion by one parent alone back in 2009.

A five-man committee has since been formed, which includes of Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam, Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Aziz and Transport Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai to resolve issues revolving around unilateral conversions which came to light during Indira’s seven-year-long court debacle.

Although Indira’s case is not the only such interfaith custody battle in Malaysia, it is the most high-profile instance and often used to illustrate the problems with the country’s parallel civil and Shariah legal systems.

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