KUALA LUMPUR: The High Court here was told that the Perlis Islamic Religious and Malay Customs Council (MAIPs) had direct legal interest to intervene in a divorce petition between a single mother, Loh Siew Hong, and ex-husband Muhammad Nagashwaran Muniandy, who converted to Islam with their three children.
MAIPs lawyer Mohamed Haniff Khatri Abdulla said MAIPs had a statutory duty to look after the wellbeing, education and guidance of Muslim converts, as well as offer financial support from tithe funds and other assistance allowed by syarak (Islamic law).
"In this case, the three children, 14-year-old twin girls and a 10-year-old boy, were converted into Islam in Perlis, thus, MAIPs have a local standi to be an intervener. At the moment, their father is under detention in Kelantan for some criminal offence. Now the children are under the custody of their Buddhist mother. If the children are Muslims, then MAIPs have a right to intervene.
"Whether the children’s’ conversions were valid or not is not an issue in this Honourable Court. The matter here is about the welfare of the children and not about the religion. We are not here to interfere in the custody rights of the mother. However, after the conversion, MAIPs holds a supervisory role to ensure the mualaf (new converts), get access to the necessary Islamic education and guidance," he said.
Meanwhile, Loh’s counsel, A. Srimurugan, countered that MAIPs should not be allowed to be an intervener in this case as the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976 (LRA) that governs marriage and divorce matters involving non-Muslims, prohibited the involvement of an Islamic state council.
"My friend’s (MAIPs’ legal team) case authorities were on parties linked to the marriage, not to an outsider or any busybody. They (MAIPs) cannot come to court and try to vary the custody order to tell Loh how to raise her children. It (LRA) does not include corporate or religious entities. The word ‘interested persons’ (in LRA) must be interpreted strictly for the interest of the child.
"Loh's children were not even born in Perlis. They were just taken there (Perlis) for a day or two, maybe even just for a few hours, to be unilaterally converted by their father. He did it despite the custody, care and control of the children had been given to his wife by the court,” said Srimugan.
At this juncture, Mohamed Haniff Khatri stood up and objected to the labelling of the state religious council as a "busybody", saying that it is merely carrying out its legal duty to ensure the welfare of Loh’s three children.
He said that the Perlis’ state enactment empowered MAIPs with jurisdiction to provide for the religious education of any mualaf registered in the state.
"MAIPs has a statutory duty and it does not wish to be a busybody. We should not be focusing on the right of the father or mother, but the right of the children. MAIPs is concerned with the children’s welfare as past news reports indicated that the children are still practicing Islam even when under the present custody of Loh (non-Muslim),” said Mohamed Haniff Khatri.
After hearing arguments by both parties, Judge Evrol Mariette Peters fixed June 15 at 2.30pm for decision on whether to grant leave to MAIPs to intervene in the divorce petition.
On March 7, MAIPs filed the intervention application so that the religious authority would have locus standi to apply for a variation on the terms of the sole custody order granted to Loh.
In the divorce petition, Loh, 34, has been granted sole custody, care and control over the three children.
On Feb 21, the three siblings who were under the care of the Social Welfare Department were released to Loh after the High Court allowed her habeas corpus application.
In her notice of motion, on Feb 13, Loh named Nazirah Nanthakumari Abdullah as the first respondent and an unnamed party that she claimed to have her three children as the second respondent.
Loh is seeking a writ of habeas corpus or other appropriate orders by the court to compel the children’s immediate release from the private custody of the respondents, and for the children to be returned to her. - Bernama