Nontransparency, Not Severity, Defeats the Rule of Law

I sent this letter today:

In “Severity of Islamic Law Fuels Debate in Malaysia” (World, August 22, 2009), James Hookway notes that partly as a result of Malaysia’s “increasingly fractious politics,” a Malaysian Muslim woman will be caned under Islamic law for drinking a glass of beer in a hotel bar.  Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, the first person to be caned for this offense, asked that her punishment be performed in public to deter other Muslims from drinking.

Mr. Hookway reports that Malaysian law enforcement refused to comply with Ms. Kartika’s request.  In fact, amidst popular complaints over such “severe” and “degrading” punishment, the government decided to cane Ms. Kartika in private behind prison walls.

Though he correctly characterizes the political unrest in Kuala Lumpur, Mr. Hookway incorrectly focuses only on the severity of Malaysian law rather than on its lack of transparency.  Malaysia’s attempt to maintain an opaque legal system represents a self-defeating step away from peaceful public life.

Indeed, Ms. Kartika herself decided against appealing her sentence.  She hoped to use her punishment to inform the world about Malaysia’s unclear laws.  Rather than focus on the severity of Islamic law, Mr. Hookway could have done more for Ms. Kartika and for Malaysia by helping her to promote clear, transparent rule of law in a country whose political unrest might be mitigated by educating the public on their vague existing system.

Severity is not lethal to justice.  Nontransparency, however, necessarily devastates the rule of law.  An effective system of justice requires that the public remains aware of what consequences they can expect from their actions.  The lesson we should learn from Ms. Kartika’s punishment is not that Islamic law deals harsh punishment, but that Malaysia arbitrarily executes that punishment without keeping the public informed.

Kathryn Ciano

Arlington, VA

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