KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - A Malaysian Islamic appeals court judge has ordered a review of the caning sentence for a woman caught drinking alcohol, paving the way for her to be exempted from the punishment.
Women's Minister Shahrizat Jalil said on Tuesday that the Chief Appeals Judge for the Islamic courts in the eastern state of Pahang had deferred the caning pending a review of the sentence handed down by a lower court.
Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, a 32-year-old mother of two, had already received a temporary reprieve on Monday when a state government official said her punishment would not be carried out until after the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. The Muslim holy month started on Saturday.
She was to have become the first woman in the Southeast Asian country to be caned under rarely enforced Islamic criminal laws.
"The judge has already started this process (to review the sentence), so we will wait for the outcome," said Shahrizat.
Instead of appealing the sentence, Kartika had asked that it be carried out in public, triggering a debate over the use of Islamic laws in the moderate Muslim country.
Prime Minister Najib Razak earlier urged Kartika to appeal instead of being "too quick in asking for punishment," adding "the authorities are sensitive to the implication of the punishment."
Kartika's case has drawn criticism from groups concerned about the rise of Islamic Shariah laws amid increasing Islamisation of the country's majority Malay-Muslims, who make up 55 percent of the 27 million population.
She was sentenced to six strokes of the cane and a fine after getting caught by Islamic enforcement officials drinking beer at a hotel lounge two years ago.
Malaysia has a dual-track legal system with Islamic criminal and family laws which are applicable to Muslims running alongside civil laws.
Kartika's case has divided Muslims in Malaysia, with conservatives coming out in support of the punishment.
"We do not want the Shariah courts to be seen as inconsistent or powerless," the opposition Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) youth leader, Nasrudin Hassan, told Internet news website Malaysian Insider.
PAS belongs to a three-party grouping led by Anwar Ibrahim that is battling for the critical Malay vote against Najib's United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the biggest party in the ruling National Front coalition.
Neither PAS nor UMNO can afford to upset conservative rural Malays.
PAS earlier this month called for the full implementation of an alcohol ban in the state of Selangor, Malaysia's richest and which is next to the capital Kuala Lumpur, upsetting the mainly Chinese Democratic Action Party, one of its allies.
A top Selangor official from PAS on Monday empowered mosque officials to detain Muslims who consume alcohol in public places.
"We are doing this to save Muslims from committing a big sin that can cause problems in families and the Muslim society," Hasan Ali, who is in charge of Muslim Affairs in Selangor, was quoted as saying by the New Straits Times newspaper.
Reporting by Royce Cheah and Razak Ahmad; Editing by Dean Yates