IPOH - A high Court judge in Ipoh has ruled that the conversion of three minors to Islam by their Muslim-convert father was unlawful in what lawyers are calling a landmark decision.
Mr Muhammad Ridzuan Abdullah, 44, a Hindu turned Muslim, had in 2009 converted his three children to Islam at the Perak Islamic Religious Department.
But Judge Lee Swee Seng on Thursday ruled against the conversion of the children - aged 12, 11 and one at the time - as it was done without the knowledge of their mother, Ms M. Indira Gandhi, 38, a Hindu.
He was quoted as saying the Federal Constitution states that a mother has an equal right to raise her children to follow her own religion.
Lawyers say the ruling is unprecedented in Malaysia, a country where civil courts almost always defer to Syariah courts regarding Islamic matters. This began after an amendment to the Federal Constitution in 1988, which states that matters of Islamic law are within the purview of the Syariah court.
Human rights lawyer Edmund Bon said the ruling has decided that the civil court has jurisdiction when a person's rights are affected under the Constitution.
"This is the first time the High Court has quashed conversion certificates issued by the Islamic department," said lawyer K. Shanmuga, who represents Ms Indira.
Malaysia has a parallel legal system for family issues for Muslims and non-Muslims, which has sometimes resulted in high-profile disputes when a case straddles both jurisdictions.
In the past, for instance, there have been cases in which one parent would appear to exploit the system by converting to Islam in order to win child custody. Non- Muslims cannot appear in a Syariah court and lawyers say such a court is more likely to award custody to the Muslim parent if the children have been converted.
These incidents angered non- Muslims, leading the Malaysian Cabinet to say in 2009 that it would not allow unilateral conversions anymore.
But the issue resurfaced recently, when the government tabled an amendment to a Bill on the administration of Islam. The amendment would allow just one parent to give consent for a child's conversion. This sparked an outcry among non-Muslims, leading to the amendment being withdrawn.
On Thursday, Justice Lee also ruled that the 2009 conversion attempt went against the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. "This decision is no victory for anyone, but we have to learn to live in harmony," he was quoted as saying in his judgment.
Last year, the High Court ordered Mr Muhammad to return custody of the children to Ms Indira, but he has yet to hand over their youngest daughter, now five. He has a month to appeal against Thursday's ruling.
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