KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 28 — Lawyer for Liberty (LFL) today urged the government to protect human rights champions in the country, after what it termed as a troubling court ruling against Muslim NGO, Sisters in Islam (SIS), yesterday.

In a statement, LFL’s legal coordinator Zaid Malek said that SIS plays a crucial role in the promotion and protection of human rights for all, and it is up to any religious authorities to declare the body as a deviant group.

Zaid also cautioned that doing so, would then open the floodgates for further action to be taken against SIS, either by the state or even by “misguided non-state actors”.

“We therefore call on the authorities to protect all human rights defenders and organisations which is crucial in ensuring that they can work in a safe, supportive environment that is free from attacks, reprisals and unreasonable restrictions.

“We further urge the Minister in charge of Islamic Affairs to look into this matter and resolve it as soon as possible,” he said, referring to Datuk Seri Mujahid Yusof Rawa.

Zaid said that the LFL is also extremely concerned with the High Court ruling yesterday, which dismissed SIS’ judicial review bid, to challenge the issuance of a Selangor fatwa, declaring the NGO as deviant.

The fatwa, which was gazetted on July 31, 2014, singled out SIS Forum (Malaysia) in a sweeping declaration that the organisation and any individuals, organisations or entities holding on to “liberalism” and “religious pluralism” are deviant from Islamic teachings.

High Court judge Datuk Nordin Hassan yesterday dismissed SIS’ legal challenge solely by ruling that the civil courts had no jurisdiction to decide on the case, and that SIS should instead go to the Shariah courts to challenge the fatwa.

The judge had gone on to provide his views on other legal points, saying that the Selangor fatwa applies to SIS Forum (Malaysia) even if it was only a company.

Companies and their directors are usually considered separate legal entities, but the judge said justice in this case requires this corporate veil to be lifted.

While acknowledging the company SIS is an “artificial legal person”, the judge said its directing minds are Muslims and their activities touch on Islamic law which the fatwa is applicable on.

SIS’ lawyers had previously said the group which operates as the company SIS Forum (Malaysia) should not be subject to a 2014 Selangor fatwa that labelled it as deviant, arguing that the Selangor Islamic authorities only have powers over “persons professing the religion of Islam” and not companies.

The 2014 fatwa also declares that any published materials with elements of liberalism or religious pluralism are haram (forbidden to Muslims) and can be confiscated, and instructs the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to block social websites that go against Islamic teachings and Islamic law.

The fatwa or religious edict also declares that any individual holding on to liberalism and religious pluralism should repent and return to the path of Islam.

On October 31, 2014, SIS Forum (Malaysia), the group’s co-founder Zainah Anwar and Datuk Zaid Ibrahim had filed a judicial review application over the fatwa against the Selangor Fatwa Committee, the Selangor Islamic Religious Council (MAIS) and the Selangor state government.

In SIS’ legal challenge, it had asked the civil courts to declare the 2014 fatwa as being unconstitutional and being in breach of federal laws and a state law.

SIS had also applied for the civil courts to declare that SIS as a company or others not able to profess the religion of Islam should not be subject to the Selangor religious authorities’ jurisdiction, as the latter has powers only over “persons” professing the religion of Islam.

In his statement, Zaid said that the High Court ruling is “disturbing” for three reasons.

“Firstly, it has been held by the Federal Court that under Article 121(1) of the Federal Constitution, judicial power is vested exclusively in the civil High Courts and their jurisdiction and powers is not confined to Federal law. Secondly, the Shariah courts have no jurisdiction over SIS which is a company; and thirdly, the corporate veil can only be lifted in instances of fraud, which is not justified in this case and have troubling ramifications on corporate entities in Malaysia.

“SIS has been targeted by religious authorities despite its decades of human rights and advocacy work focusing on women’s rights in Islam. For example, its free legal clinic, Telenisa, has provided non-judgmental assistance to about 10,000 women and men on their legal rights under the Islamic family law and Shariah laws,” he said, adding that SIS has continuously championed pivotal community issues such as ending child marriages, gender-based violence, female gender mutilation (FGM) and promoting gender equality and non-discrimination.

“To give legitimacy to the intolerant fatwa suggests that all the aforesaid work of SIS is against the teachings of Islam,” he added.