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Network of women's rights organisations targeted for questioning Islamic law and its application

(CIJ/IFEX) - The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) is deeply concerned about the targeting of a network of women's rights organisations. The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) has been raising questions about the absence of human rights standards in a recent Syariah court decision to whip a woman for consuming alcohol. JAG has also called for the repeal of the Syariah criminal offences law. As a result of these actions, JAG has been criticised by 40 Muslim organisations and two wings of the ruling party UMNO for allegedly insulting Islam and the nine Malaysian monarchs in their role as guardians of Islam.

According to the online news site http://www.malaysiakini.com , the organisations lodged complaints with the police against JAG on 1 to 9 October 2009. One of the groups, the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), is also mobilising people to lodge police complaints against JAG. This is a clear example of the intimidation of women's voices defending women's human rights.

In July, the Syariah High Court in Pahang imposed a fine of RM5,000 (approx. US$1,500) and a sentence of six lashes on Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno for drinking beer in public. Following international press coverage and a public outcry, the sentence was deferred to after Hari Raya (the Muslim New Year) celebrations in September. The "New Straits Times" reported that Kartika would be the first person in Malaysia to be whipped for drinking in public.

JAG, however, has argued since 2005 that the implementation of the Syariah criminal offences law has been problematic on Syariah, constitutional and legal grounds. JAG has called for a review of Kartika's sentence, saying that it violates Malaysia's obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) as well as other ASEAN level commitments on women's rights. CIJ is worried that instead of addressing these arguments, the groups who lodged police complaints resorted to inflammatory charges to shut down an opportunity to look at the issue objectively. Calling for police action to be taken against JAG under various undemocratic laws is tantamount to calling for punishment against those who raise fair comment.

This is not the first public mobilisation against the women's group. NGOs, including those supposedly defending human rights, have in the past spoken out strongly against the organising of dialogues on freedom of religion. Forums on conversion to Islam organised by the Article 11 coalition in 2006 and by the Bar Council in 2008 were disrupted by angry protesters. In June 2009, the Islamic party PAS called for a government investigation into a feminist Muslim group, Sisters in Islam, for being anti-Islamic. Views contrary to the dominant political and Islamic religious authorities expressed in the form of speech, publications and art are not tolerated by the state and its supporters. CIJ views these actions as an intimidation of genuine voices and while we accept the rights of the groups to voice their protest against JAG, we worry that implications for free expression could be damaging.

CIJ deplores the call for and use of restrictive laws against critics of public interest issues. We believe that the issues raised by JAG must be resolved with level-headedness. Punishing JAG for raising a question does not eliminate the problem itself.

We call on the authorities not to take action against JAG and for the groups to stop their intimidation.

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