By Annabelle Lee

A documentary discussed the human impact stemming from possible systemic issues with Malaysia’s Syariah Court system, using the narrative of two high-profile cases, to highlight the human costs that may arise from the conflicting reality of our dual-track justice system.

(To read this article in Malaysiakini click here.)

‘Mengejar Keadilan’ (Seeking Justice) directed by Norhayati Kaprawi, takes a close intimate look at two separate but similarly emotionally draining Syariah cases.

The first is the long drawn-out custody battle of Hindu kindergarten teacher Indira Gandhi, with her Muslim convert former husband who went around her back to unilaterally convert their children to Islam, and even kidnapping one of them.

After more than eight years, Indira’s challenge of the unilateral conversion of her children by her Muslim convert ex-husband has yet to be resolved, and the matter of the custody of the children hangs in the limbo between the Syariah and Civil court systems.

One of the reasons being the fact that as her children are now legally considered Muslims and her ex-husband is now a Muslim, various aspects of the case falls under the purview of the Syariah Court, which as a non-Muslim, she cannot appear or make representation in.

This, despite legal opinions that matters of civil marriages should be settled in Civil Courts first after the conversion of either spouse.

The situation frustrated her efforts to resolve the matter as the two legal tracks, Syariah and Civil, sent her on a ping-pong match from one jurisdiction to the other in consequent application proceedings, trials and appeals.

The documentary looks into how the dragged-out judicial process has affected the lives of Indira and her other children, especially after her ex-husband kidnapped their youngest daughter eight years ago.

The other story is that of former Terengganu Syariah Court head judge Ismail Yahya, 61, who was charged in 2013 with insulting the Terengganu Islamic Religious and Malay Customs Council (Maidam) and the Terengganu Sultan’s instructions on restructuring the body.

He was charged after some took offence with certain words that he used in his letter questioning a proposed move to restructure the council to include the Syariah judiciary under its purview.

Ismail was charged for standing up against what he perceived as a threat to the independence of the judiciary from the executive. Instead of being praised, he ended up being put on trial in the very system of justice that he was defending.

However, he was acquitted last year when the Kuala Terengganu Syariah High Court ruled that the prosecution failed to establish prima facie, provided incomplete evidence, and did not bring forth key witnesses.

Though by then the trial had taken a physical, mental and emotional toll on him, even if he was proven right in the end.

The documentary was funded and produced by former Umno law minister Zaid Ibrahim, well known for his criticism of the nation’s dual track Civil-Syariah system of justice and a proponent of legal reforms.

Among other views, Zaid had often called for an overhaul of our dual-track legal system to address the overlap, mismatch and conflicts which jars the landscape of justice when the two systems collide.

“I felt strongly about the breakdown of the (Syariah court) system… religion in Malaysia has become very politicised,” said Zaid about his reasons for financing the film.

He related that he approached Norhayati one year ago to direct the film.

A portion of the yet-to-be finished documentary was screened last night at the launch of the Freedom Film Fest 2017 in Petaling Jaya.

Norhayati aims to complete it by September and has plans to release it on YouTube.

A photography exhibition about the conviction of Lena Hendry, by Indrani Gopal, and a screening of ‘Hooligan Sparrow’ by Chinese filmmaker Nanfu Wang were also held at the launch.

The festival is an annual international documentary festival that showcases films highlighting human rights issues.

It was previously organised by humans rights NGO Pusat Komas but will be organised by the Freedom Film Network beginning this year.

The festival is now accepting film submissions.