KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — A Muslim woman's caning sentence for drinking beer has been commuted unexpectedly, ending a high-profile case that raised questions about Islamic laws intruding into personal matters in Malaysia.
"I have very mixed feelings. I was shocked because this was unexpected," Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, a 33-year-old mother of two, told reporters Thursday after receiving the reprieve.
She received a letter Wednesday from the Pahang state Islamic department informing her that the state's sultan had decided to spare her the caning and instead ordered her to do three weeks of community service. Kartika said she will start work at a children's home on Friday.
The order is likely to cool a fiery debate over whether Islamic laws are intruding into people's private lives in the Muslim-majority country, which has long been seen as a model of a moderate and progressive Islamic society.
Many people had condemned the punishment, saying it shows conservative Islamists are gaining influence over the justice system.
Kartika was sentenced last July to six strokes of the cane after being caught by morality police at a beach restaurant while drinking beer, which is forbidden by Islamic laws.
She pleaded guilty and did not appeal her sentence, but the punishment was halted at the last minute following an uproar in the media and among rights activists.
The former model said she felt "tortured" while waiting to be caned and now feels the punishment should have been carried out.
"But I will follow the sultan's orders," she said, adding that she has already expressed regret for drinking.
Three other Muslim women were caned this year for having sex out of wedlock, becoming the first Muslim women to be caned.
Their cases did not draw as much attention because the caning was kept secret until after it was done. Subsequently, the women appeared before local media and said they deserved the punishment.
It was not clear what prompted Sultan Ahmad Shah to commute the sentence, but he could have been influenced by the negative publicity that Malaysia received after the caning sentencing.
The sultan is the guardian of Islam in the state and its titular head. Most of Malaysia's 13 states are ruled by sultans who usually play a ceremonial role in governance but have the power to rule in Islamic matters.
Officials had said the caning would have been very different from the corporal punishment administered to male criminals under secular laws.
Thick stick, thin cane
Drug offenders, kidnappers and others are caned with a thick rattan stick on bare buttocks, breaking the skin and leaving lifelong scars.
Kartika's punishment under Islamic laws would have been delivered with a thin cane on the back with her clothes on.
The sultan's commutation of the sentence followed a meeting last month between Kartika and the Pahang crown prince to discuss her fate after the caning was delayed. It was unclear what occurred at the meeting.
Malaysia follows a dual-track justice system. Shariah laws apply to Muslims in all personal matters.
Non-Muslims — Chinese, Indians, Sikhs and other minorities — are covered by civil laws and are free to drink.
Only three states in Malaysia — Pahang, Perlis and Kelantan — impose caning for drinking alcohol. In the other 10 states it is punishable by a fine.
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