Wednesday, January 13, 2016

After Indira’s defeat, MP bids to introduce safeguards on unilateral child conversions

DAP MP M. Kulasegaran has proposed a change to Section 51 of the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act to prevent unilateral child conversions when one of their parents become a Muslim.

By Ida Lim

Opposition lawmakers will submit a Private Members’ Bill to Parliament this March to prevent the unilateral religious conversion of children when one of their parents become a Muslim, DAP MP M. Kulasegaran has said.

Kulasegaran said the proposed change to Section 51 of the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act is intended to “strengthen” the provision to make it clear that all matters related to a civil marriage will be settled in the civil courts.

“That (Section 51) leaves a lot of things open. It doesn’t say about children or say what happens after that. We want to spell it out,” the Ipoh Barat MP told Malay Mail Online when contacted yesterday.

Kulasegaran said the Private Members’ Bill will seek to amend Section 51 and make it plain that the spouse converting to Islam shall not do anything to change the religion of the children of the marriage under the age of 18 unilaterally until the issue of custody has been decided by the High Court.

Currently, Section 51 covers dissolution of marriage due to a spouse’s conversion to Islam, where the other spouse that has not converted may petition for divorce within three months of the conversion.

The particular section also states that the courts, when dissolving a marriage, may make provision for the wife or husband, and for the children's support, care and custody, and may attach any conditions to the dissolution decree.

Kulasegaran is also a lawyer representing Hindu mother M. Indira Gandhi, who recently lost a challenge at the Court of Appeal where the judges in a 2-1 decision said that only the Shariah court can decide on the validity of the unilateral conversion of her three children to Islam by her Muslim convert ex-husband Muhammad Riduan Abdullah.

Muhammad Riduan converted the three children in their absence and without Indira’s knowledge in April 2009, just several days before successfully obtaining custody over them in the Shariah court. He also took the youngest child and ignored a civil High Court order to return her to Indira, who won custody of all three in the civil courts.

Like Indira, Hindu mother S. Deepa is also battling for her son that was snatched away by her estranged Muslim convert husband, Izwan Abdullah, who obtained custody for both their children in the Shariah courts after converting them to Islam. She also won custody of both children in the civil courts.

Both high-profile cases saw the police declining to comply with the civil courts’ orders to track down and return the snatched child to the non-Muslim parent, due to concerns over the alleged conflicting jurisdictions between the civil court and Shariah courts.

Kulasegaran said the opposition lawmakers will submit the Private Members’ Bill regardless of what the ruling government does, but insisted that their move would not prevent Putrajaya from tabling the necessary legal amendments.

He confirmed that the Malaysian Bar ― the professional body representing lawyers in peninsular Malaysia ― will be consulted for the Private Members’ Bill.

Following the Court of Appeal’s decision in Indira’s case, civil society groups have urged Putrajaya to uphold its 2009 Cabinet decision barring the religious conversion of children without both spouses’ consent.

Putrajaya’s proposed legal amendments to enforce the Cabinet decision were later shelved just hours before tabling in Parliament, following alleged disapproval from the Conference of Rulers.

Last week, the Cabinet reportedly appointed three ministers to meet with the Attorney-General to find a solution for Indira’s case ― the third time such a panel has been formed. Yesterday, minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam was reported saying that the prime minister has also “principally agreed to look at amendments to existing laws to prevent unilateral conversion of children”.

Last September, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Nancy Shukri said the Attorney-General’s Chambers is mulling the amendment to three laws to resolve the conflict of jurisdiction between the civil courts and the Shariah courts when a spouse converts to Islam, namely the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976, Administration of Islamic Law (Federal Territories) Act 1993 and Islamic Family Law (Federal Territories) Act 1984.

“In the proposed amendment, if a non-Muslim spouse converts into Islam, he should first settle all the obligations and liabilities under the law governing his or her civil marriage, Act 164, such as marriage dissolution, granting alimony to the ex-wife and children, child custody and division of marital assets,” the de facto law minister had said, referring to the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act.

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