BANGKOK -- Malaysian authorities appeared to have set free a Muslim woman who was scheduled to be caned under Islamic laws for drinking beer in a hotel bar, in a case that some political analysts described as a symptom of the country's increasingly fractious politics.
Drinking alcohol is illegal for Malaysia's Muslims, who make up about 60% of the nation's 27 million people. Usually, those caught are subjected to a fine or brief prison sentence. Non-Muslims, including large ethnic-Chinese and Indian communities, are free to drink and aren't subject to Shariah law.
View Full Image Muslim model Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, 32, will be caned for drinking beer. Associated Press
Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, however, was sentenced to six lashes with a rattan cane. On Friday, the 32-year-old mother of two asked for the punishment to be carried out in public to deter other Muslims from drinking alcohol.
But on Monday, Reuters reported, Ms. Kartika was freed while on her way to jail to receive the sentence. It wasn't immediately clear whether Ms. Kartika would be spared the punishment, or whether Islamic authorities had decided not to imprison her in order to carry out her sentence. Shararfuddin Zainal Ariffin, head of enforcement for the state of Pahang's Islamic Affair's Department, told reporters that 'the warrant cannot be executed,' Reuters reported. More
* Opinion: Caning in Malaysia
Malaysian authorities previously said they won't cane Ms. Kartika in public, contrary to what she and her father requested. They also said she will be fully clothed as the sentence is carried out and that she will be struck on the rear with a thin bamboo cane with moderate force, with the prison officer raising it no higher than the shoulder before delivering the blow.
Ms. Kartika's punishment, ordered by an Islamic court Wednesday, and subsequent release come at a time of political tension in Malaysia. The ruling National Front and the Islamist component of an opposition alliance are competing to place themselves as the guardians of a faith that has taken on an increasingly political face in Malaysia over the past 20 years.
The National Front accuses the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, of giving up some of its Islamic ideals by showing a willingness to compromise with its secular allies in matters such as whether convenience stores can sell alcohol in majority Muslim areas, or the location of pig abattoirs-sensitive issues in this multiracial society.
PAS, meanwhile, accuses the National Front and its main party, the United Malays National Organization, of being so entrenched in power after more than 50 years in office that they are unable to govern in accordance with the ethical principles of Islam.
Farish A. Noor, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, says that the potential caning of Ms. Kartika 'is just a sign of what is to come.' Both PAS and UMNO, he said, are pushing for wider use of Shariah law in Malaysia.
The battle between UMNO and PAS over who has a greater claim as defender of the faith is being brought into relief in Penang state in the north of the country, where a special election for a state assembly seat will be held Tuesday.
The National Front, in particular, is using a campaign strategy designed to undermine PAS among prospective voters in the Chinese and Indian communities by playing up the party's efforts to ban beer sales at convenience stores. At the same time, the National Front is attempting to convince Muslim Malay voters that PAS is too willing to cut deals with its secular allies in order to secure political power. Senior UMNO leaders have condemned the leader of the opposition alliance, Anwar Ibrahim, as a 'traitor' to the Malay race.
The sentence initially handed down to Ms. Kartika, meanwhile, triggered a debate on whether Islamic laws are too severe for a multiracial society such as Malaysia.
Ms. Kartika, who lives in Singapore, was caught drinking beer at a hotel in Kuantan, in Malaysia's Pahang state, during a raid in 2007 by religious authorities. She declined to appeal and came back to Malaysia for the punishment."