The latest chapter in a Malaysian mother’s marathon legal struggle to recover her long lost daughter highlights some pressing problems within the southeast Asian nation’s legal and law enforcement apparatus.
Moreover, the protracted drama brought a great deal of scrutiny upon Malaysia’s dual judicial system, which operates Muslim-only shariah courts in parallel with the regular legal framework.
Under this system, shariah court judges can rule on civil and minor criminal cases where sentencing does not exceed three years in prison.
The custody battle between kindergarten teacher M. Indira Gandhi and her ex-husband Muhammad Riduan Abdullah has gripped the nation for more than a decade, as the case takes numerous twists and turns.
In March 2009, Riduan — originally K. Pathmanathan — converted to Islam, prompting the couple from Ipoh in the northern state of Perak to divorce. He then unilaterally converted his three children to Islam and absconded with their youngest daughter Prasana Diksa, barely 11 months old.
Meanwhile, a shariah court quickly granted Riduan full custody of all three children.
Indira later managed to have this ruling overturned at the high court and she was given full custody rights.
Ordinarily, the case would be closed there and then, but Malaysia is no ordinary country.
Indira then had to fight to have the conversions annulled — her two elder children are practising Hindus — which was no mean feat. Challenging anything Islamic for whatever reason in Malaysia is often perceived by the authorities as an attack on the religion, therefore a serious crime.
So, this was another legal minefield Indira had to navigate — all the while insisting her absent ex-husband return Prasana Diksa — and the start to a ding-dong courtroom battle with Riduan and the authorities.
Key moments included 2014 high court judgments, ruling unilateral conversion unconstitutional, while requiring the police to hunt down and arrest Riduan.
The Attorney-General’s Chambers then became involved, challenging the court’s decision, which prompted more back-and-forth as the Court of Appeal and the Federal Court — the highest court in the land — both wrestled with the legalities of the conversion and bringing Riduan to justice (he was held in contempt for dodging earlier court orders).
Finally, in 2018, the Federal Court unanimously ruled Riduan’s unilateral conversion null and void, ordering Prasana Diksa to be returned to her mother.
The court stated that conversions of children had to have the consent of both parents, while the children have to utter the affirmation of faith before the Registrar of Muallafs, neither of which Riduan had obtained.
Given that Riduan was a fugitive from justice, the onus was on the police to hunt him down and bring him before the court.
Yet, two more years — and 11 since Riduan first disappeared — Indira is no closer to being reunited with Prasana Diksa, while the nation debates the fallout from this epic story.
Conservative Malays believe the shariah court has been impugned by outside influence and, as mentioned, the outcome is an attack on Islam itself despite the Federal Court ruling, which involved scrutinising shariah law and Islamic jurisprudence.
They nevertheless see it as an infringement on their right to practise their faith and live according to its teachings.
In Selangor — one of Malaysia’s more progressive states — Muslim lawmakers are also trying to push through a bill to legalise unilateral conversion, directly challenging the Federal Court and no doubt setting the scene for a legal showdown further down the line.
Meanwhile, liberal Malaysians are horrified that this case has dragged on for so long, while pointing the finger squarely at the police for refusing to carry out their constitutional mandate as officers of the law.
There is plenty of evidence to support this conjecture. In 2014, when first asked about police intransigence in this case, then Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar kicked off his litany of excuses by saying that he did not want to offend the shariah court, despite the fact that it had been overruled by the high court.
If his actions did not ignite the religious debate, they certainly poured fuel on the fire.
The public, already distrustful of a man with a reputation for cherry-picking how the law should be enforced, was less than convinced.
Since then, he and his successors have doled out a number of reasons why Riduan is still at large, chiefly that he has fled the country and is living in southern Thailand.
The evidence points to the police sitting on their hands mounted recently when, in an impassioned plea, Indira demanded to know what was being done, given that the police have been legally compelled to act since 2016.
Inspector-General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador agreed to meet Indira to give her a status update, but only in a one-to-one private meeting without any legal representation, so she quite rightly wanted to know what it was he was hiding.
Moreover, the latest press reports say Hamid knows Riduan’s whereabouts, while his officers are working with local authority figures to encourage him to give himself up.
Even if he is in Thailand and beyond the police’s jurisdiction, after so many years it should not be that hard to work with the authorities north of the border to detain Riduan and prepare him for extradition, as opposed to politely asking him to surrender.
Public disquiet grows after Bangladeshi Md Rayhan Kabir was hunted down and prepped for deportation within days of going into hiding, following a frank interview he gave to Al Jazeera in June about the authorities’ treatment of migrant workers.
People are asking why the police can be so blisteringly efficient in this case, but another high-profile fugitive continues to thumb his nose at them after more than a decade on the run.
Hamid does not like this brand of armchair policing, lashing out at a press conference recently. Yet, it is the most telling sign that something is amiss.
The government and by extension the authorities are typically opaque when trying to cover up for something.
Briefings about how everything humanly possible is being done are short on details and any media poking around are given even shorter shrift.
Even though Hamid says the police are doing everything they can to track down Riduan and Prasana Diksa, his overarching affirmation and the absence of any hard facts seem to be a ruse to keep the press at bay until interest dies down once again.
However, the unpleasant spotlight of media scrutiny appears to be the only way Indira can shake an indolent police force into action.
She has only been waiting 11 years, after all.
Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.