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No confusion that only shariah court can allow renunciation, says lawyer

4ecd5990 mahkamah syariah wilayah persekutuan 02 1
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4ecd5990 mahkamah syariah wilayah persekutuan 02 1
A lawyer said the Federal Court had in 2021 ruled that the civil courts had no jurisdiction to entertain applications by Muslims to renounce Islam.

PETALING JAYA: There is no confusion in law that only the shariah courts have jurisdiction to hear cases involving Muslims intending to renounce their faith, a lawyer said, adding that the Federal Court had put the issue to rest three years ago.

Haniff Khatri Abdullah said the civil courts retain jurisdiction in cases in which a litigant disputes having ever been of the Muslim faith.

He said the apex court decision in Rosliza Ibrahim v Kerajaan Negeri Selangor & anor, handed down in 2021, has since been followed by the lower courts in judicial review applications brought by those seeking to exit Islam.

“Muslims intending to renounce Islam would have to go to the shariah court,” he said.

Haniff Khatri Abdullah MS 120620
Haniff Khatri Abdullah.

Haniff was commenting following the apex court’s 2-1 decision last Monday denying a woman leave to appeal against a Court of Appeal ruling handed down last year.

Justice Hasnah Hashim, who chaired the apex court’s bench, said the 34-year-old woman did not cross the threshold set under Section 96 of the Courts of Judicature Act 1964 for the merits of her appeal to be heard.

Under the provision, leave is granted only if there are novel constitutional or legal questions of public importance raised for the first time.

“So, the Federal Court is quite right, as the law is quite settled. There is no confusion,” he said.

Haniff said lawyer Fahri Azzat’s claim that the decision was tantamount to a denial of her constitutional right to freedom of religion was misplaced.

He said the shariah courts have allowed Muslims to renounce Islam (murtad) provided they can satisfy strict criteria.

“Yes, (it is) very rare, but I was informed by shariah law practitioners that it has been allowed. If the requirements for renunciation are satisfied, the state religious courts will give the order sought,” said Haniff.

Earlier,  Fahri  told the media there was no legal recourse for a person to leave Islam if permission is refused by the shariah courts.

Another lawyer said the 2018 Federal Court ruling in M Indira Gandhi v Ketua Pengarah Jabatan Agama Islam Perak has held that the shariah court is a public authority and an inferior tribunal.

He said the religious court, enacted under the constitution of each state, is not a court of equal stature and jurisdiction as the superior courts, which are established under the Federal Constitution.

The lawyer said Article 121(1A) of the constitution states that the civil courts shall have no jurisdiction in respect of any matter within the jurisdiction of the shariah courts.

“Article 121(1A) of the constitution was included in 1988 as a shield to prevent the civil courts from having to deal with renunciation cases as they come under the jurisdiction of shariah courts,” said the lawyer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He said the civil courts could deal with disputes involving the conversion of minors by one spouse without the consent of the other, known as unilateral conversions, or in wrongful conversion cases.

“The present constitutional arrangement in this Muslim majority nation will ensure social and public order is maintained,” he said, adding there would be chaos if the civil court declares it has jurisdiction to hear applications to exit Islam.

Another counsel, however, said the refusal to grant leave was shocking because the High Court and Court of Appeal have repeatedly stated in judicial review applications that the shariah courts are of equal stature with the civil courts.

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“But the Federal Court in a series of cases has held that the shariah courts are effectively inferior tribunals. For this reason alone, leave should have been granted,” said this lawyer, who also declined to be identified.

“More fundamentally, the facts of these cases show the so-called ‘right’ to leave Islam is illusory.

“The applicant was forced to undergo counselling when she claimed to profess another faith, and yet the shariah court refused to let her leave Islam,” he added.

He said the situation amounted to a “mockery” of the constitutional right to freedom of religion as the exercise of that right is subject to the approval of the relevant religious body.

On Aug 23 last year, the Court of Appeal dismissed the woman’s appeal for leave to bring judicial review proceedings in her bid to renounce Islam. It held that the civil courts have no jurisdiction to review decisions handed down by the shariah courts.

The woman, born a Muslim, claimed she never practised Islam and that her mother had allowed her to choose her religion.

She had gone to the Kuala Lumpur shariah high court in 2018 to seek an order that she be allowed to renounce Islam as she intended to practise Buddhism.

However, the shariah court ordered her to attend 12 counselling sessions instead.

Two years later, the shariah court denied a second application to leave Islam and ordered her to attend additional counselling sessions. An appeal to the shariah appeals court failed.

The woman then turned to the civil courts to nullify the decisions of the shariah courts. She claimed the decision to reject her application to renounce Islam violated Article 11, which guarantees an individual’s freedom of religion.

Her application had previously been dismissed by the High Court in 2022.

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