The first woman in Muslim-majority Malaysia to face caning for drinking beer was reprieved Monday because of the holy month of Ramadan. Her family said she would rather get the thrashing with a rattan cane now and put the ordeal behind her.
Islamic officials had taken Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, a 32-year-old mother of two, into custody and were driving her to a women's prison for the caning when they abruptly turned around and sent her back to her family home in northern Malaysia.
"She feels like a football being kicked around," Kartika's father, Shukarno Abdul Muttalib, told The Associated Press. "She's so exhausted and unhappy with the delay. She would prefer to just receive the six strokes and have everything finished."
Amnesty International, Malaysian lawyers and some politicians have condemned the sentence, while other critics have warned it would tarnish Malaysia's image as a moderate country. Islamic officials have defended it as necessary to uphold Islamic values _ underscoring tensions between religious conservatives and more liberal and secular elements in society.
Beer, wine and liquor is widely available at shops, bars and restaurants in Malaysia, unlike in more austere Islamic nations such as Iran and Pakistan. Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and other minorities in Malaysia are free to consume alcohol but its Shariah law forbids Muslims _ who make up 60 percent of the 27 million population _ from drinking, although a minority of Muslims still indulge despite the religious stricture.
Islamic morality police _ enforcement officials of the Islamic Religious Department _ arrested Kartika in a raid for drinking beer at a hotel lounge at a beach resort in Cherating in Pahang state in December 2007. Kartika was sentenced to six lashes of a rattan cane by the Shariah court last month in what was considered a warning to other Muslims to abide by religious rules.
Islamic law provides for a three-year prison term and caning for Muslims caught drinking. Most previous offenders were fined and no woman has ever been caned.
The morality police are not a pervasive force in Malaysia, and most citizens were surprised at the verdict against Kartika.
Mohamad Sahfri Abdul Aziz, a state legislator in charge of religious affairs, said Monday the Attorney General's office advised that Kartika's caning should be delayed for compassionate reasons until after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which began Saturday.
"The sentence is not being canceled," Mohamad Sahfri said, without specifying exactly when it would be carried out.
In an interview with the AP last week, Kartika said she regretted drinking and was even willing to be caned in public in order to send a clear message to other Muslims to avoid alcohol. Authorities said the caning had to be done at a prison.
Government officials have remained silent on the issue even though the local media have reported on it extensively. The only prominent personality to comment has been former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
On Monday, he urged authorities to check Islamic teachings to determine whether it would be appropriate to cane Kartika for drinking.
"Is it possible that a judge may have been unfair or mistaken in his consideration? Is there no room in Islam for mercy toward those who commit an error for the first time?" Mahathir wrote on his widely read blog.
Chandra Muzaffar, president of the Malaysian think tank, International Movement for a Just World, said the international attention on Kartika's case could "provide ammunition" for some people to criticize Malaysia's capacity for religious tolerance.
"She should not be caned in the first place," Chandra said. "What we should do is advise her. This punitive psychology is a bane for Muslim societies, and we should get away from it."
Islamic officials had insisted that the caning's purpose is to educate rather than punish. They say the rattan cane supposed to be used on Kartika would be smaller and lighter than the one used for men, and that she will remain clothed.
Men convicted of crimes such as rape and bribery in Malaysia are caned on their bare buttocks, breaking the skin and leaving permanent scars.
Rattan canes used in the punishment are made from palm plants common in tropical parts of Asia. They have been used for decades for corporal punishments in countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.
Separately Monday, officials in the central state of Selangor near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's largest city, stepped up efforts to deter drinking by empowering mosque officials to arrest Muslims who consume liquor in public places, The Star newspaper's Web site quoted state lawmaker Hassan Ali as saying.