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Malaysia: No Joy for Lina

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After several years of fighting to remove the word “Islam” from her identity card, the Federal court has rejected Lina Joy’s last appeal. This decision reflects the judiciary’s inability to defend the rights of its citizens. 
Lina Joy, a Malaysian woman, born Muslim, appealed to the nation’s highest court to officially recognise her conversion to Christianity. On 30th May 2007, the nation’s highest court refused her appeal. A three-judge Federal Court panel ruled by a 2 to1 majority that only the Islamic Shariah Court has the power to change Lina Joy’s official faith and to remove “Islam” from her identity card.
Born Azlina Jailani in 1965 in Malaysia to Muslim parents, Lina Joy converted at age 26 from Islam to Christianity. In 1998, she was baptised and subsequently applied to have her conversion legally recognised by the Malaysian courts. According to Malaysian law, Muslims cannot marry non-Muslims, leaving Joy unable to wed her Christian boyfriend.

In 1999, Lina Joy changed her name from Azlina Jailani and attempted to change her legally recognized religious status. She presented her case to the civil court that decided her case must be adjudicated in the Shariah court. She argued that she was Christian and she was not bound by the Shariah law.

In April of 2001, Ms. Joy applied to the High Court, which refused to grant changes in her religious status, and subsequently applied to the Court of Appeal. In September 2005, the Court of Appeal decided that the National Registration Department director-general was right to refuse her application to drop her religious status from her identity card.
Since she has attended church since 1992, Joy doesn’t think she has to follow Shariah law; in 2006, she filed suit with the Federal Court.
According to Shariah law, apostasy is a crime punishable by fines and jail sentences. Muslims who renounce or change their faith are often sent to “religious-run rehabilitation centres,” in the hope that the person will return to Islam. If Lina Joy asks the Shariah court to remove “Islam” from her identity card, it is considered apostasy, leaving her with the possibility of a jail sentence. Because of the nation’s highest court’s verdict, she cannot choose her own faith, nor marry a Christian. Her lawyer suggested she leave the country to continue her faith. She is now in Australia, seeking refugee status.

According to Malaysian law, the Shariah Court holds the sole authority on the issue of conversion from Islam.  Even if the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, many human rights groups denounce the strength of Shariah law, which holds more power than the nation’s highest court.

About 60 percent of Malaysia's 25 million people are Malay Muslims whose civil, family, marriage and personal rights are decided by Shariah courts. The minorities, including Chinese, Indians and other non-Muslim people, are governed by civil courts. Non-Muslims can abandon their faith and Muslims wishing to renounce Islam must get approval from the Shariah courts. Malaysia maintains two parallel justice systems.

In this case, the real human rights violation is not whether Lina Joy has to apply the Shariah courts or not, but instead that apostasy is viewed as a crime, punishable by jail sentences and heavy fines. Because of this law, people who are born Muslim are not allowed to choose their own religion in Malaysia without risking jail sentences, which directly defies the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). However, because Malaysia has not ratified the ICCPR, it is not bound to protect these basic rights.

In the past, Malaysia was heralded as a model of a moderate Muslim nation committed to safeguarding the rights of its diverse population. But the Federal Court’s verdict on Joy’s case, which represented her last legal recourse, may undercut that reputation. The Joy verdict is seen by many in Malaysia as evidence of how religious politics are cleaving the nation, undermining the rights of non-Muslims and Muslims alike.

FORUM-ASIA’s member SUARAM said the judiciary has once again failed to defend citizens from unjust punishment for merely exercising their rights as enshrined in the Federal Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.