Shariah chief judge gives thumbs up to proposed tribunal to resolve interfaith custody disputes

Hindu mother S. Deepa (pic) was involved in a custody battle with her Muslim convert ex-husband, Izwan Abdullah, formerly Viran Nagapan. ― Picture by Yusoff Mat Isa
Hindu mother S. Deepa (pic) was involved in a custody battle with her Muslim convert ex-husband, Izwan Abdullah, formerly Viran Nagapan. ― Picture by Yusoff Mat Isa

BANGI, Feb 16 ― A proposed tribunal consisting of judges from both sides of Malaysia’s dual-track civil and Islamic courts will offer the “best of both systems” towards resolving interfaith conflict in child custody cases, the country’s Shariah court chief judge said today.

Tan Sri Ibrahim Lembut said the idea mooted by the Muslim Lawyers Association is the most practical platform to settle disputes between Muslim and non-Muslim spouses, as non-Muslims are not bound by Shariah law, even though he acknowledged that Muslims were still bound by civil laws.

“I full-heartedly agree to this idea and this was in fact one of our early plans. The tribunal would enable judges from both sides to sit together and deliberate and we can get the best of both systems,” the director-general of the Shariah Judiciary Department said.

Ibrahim hoped that the proposed tribunal would put an end to the existing strife due to such cases.

He said Islamic justice prioritised the mother’s rights to custody of her children, but noted that some non-Muslim parents may not be aware of that.

“We have requested the presence of non-Muslim parents to the Shariah courts before to let them have their say, but often they do not turn up,” he said, adding that the number of such cases were low.

“Some people do not know that even the Shariah courts prioritises a mother’s right to custody of her children.”

Last week, Muslim Lawyers Association president Datuk Zainul Rijal Abu Bakar mooted a new law to enable the formation of a tribunal for cases in which one of the spouses in an initial non-Muslim couple converts to Islam.

Such a tribunal which would be less formal than the typical courts could consist of judges from both the civil courts and Shariah courts, with the Conference of Rulers to oversee and appoint the tribunal’s chairman, Zainul Rijal said in his opinion piece published in Malay daily Sinar Harian.

He said this method would ensure both civil and Shariah legal viewpoints are taken into account and would cool down emotions and prejudices on both parties.

Zainul Rijal mooted the idea fresh after the Federal Court verdict on Hindu mother S. Deepa’s custody battle with her Muslim convert ex-husband, Izwan Abdullah, formerly Viran Nagapan, splitting the custody of their two children.

Deepa was given her daughter Nur Nabila (Sharmila), 11, while Izwan got Nabil (Mithran), 8.

A five-man bench comprising Tan Sri Raus Sharif, Tan Sri Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin, Tan Sri Abdull Hamid Embong, Tan Sri Suriyadi Halim Omar and Datuk Seri Azahar Mohamed reached the decision after interviewing the children in chambers at the start of the case.

The panel led by Raus also set aside a Negri Sembilan civil High Court decision that granted Deepa full custody of her children.

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