By Emma Batha
LONDON, June 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain's new government must abolish Islamic sharia courts, campaigners said on Monday, describing them as "kangaroo courts" that delivering second-rate justice and trampling over the rights of women and children.
They called for the government to stick to pre-election promises to hold an inquiry into sharia courts which first appeared in Britain in the mid-1980s.
"Over the years, we have witnessed with increasing alarm the influence of 'Sharia courts' over the lives of citizens of Muslim heritage," nearly 200 women's rights and secular campaigners said in a statement.
"Though the 'Sharia courts' have been touted as people's right to religion, they are in fact, effective tools of the far-right Islamist movement whose main aim is to restrict and deny rights, particularly those of women and children."
It has been reported that there are 85 such courts in Britain, but the number is unknown. The courts -- called sharia councils -- deal mostly with family matters, in particular divorce.
Campaigners say women in abusive relationships are being forced to return to their husbands while others end up in destitution following divorce under sharia law. Many women also lose custody of their children after divorce.
The courts give a woman's testimony only half the weight of that of a man, campaigners say, and sons inherit twice the share of daughters.
Sharia councils contacted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation were not immediately available for comment. But the Islamic Sharia Council in east London says on its website that it takes a "harsh stance" on domestic violence, never forces a woman to stay with a husband she wants to divorce and always insists that couples refer custody issues to civil courts.
The campaigners' statement called on the government to stop the development of parallel legal systems and to defend the principle of one law for all.
The 197 signatories include women's rights groups and secular organisations along with prominent writers, academics, journalists and lawyers. Many of the signatories are from a Muslim background.
Britain's Home Office said on Monday that a review into sharia courts would be included in a counter extremism strategy to be announced soon.
Some supporters of sharia councils have suggested problems with the system should be addressed through regulation, but opponents say the courts simply should not exist.
"Opposing 'Sharia courts' is not racism or 'Islamophobic'; it is a defence of the rights of all citizens, irrespective of their beliefs and background to be governed by democratic means under the principle of one law for all," the statement added.
The statement also called for the government review to examine the impact of "draconian" legal aid cuts which they said were increasingly forcing abused women from minority backgrounds to go to sharia courts to sort out family legal proceedings.
Sharia law derives from the Koran and the Hadiths, the sayings and customs attributed to the Prophet Mohammad, as well as rulings by Islamic scholars.
But the statement pointed out that sharia laws are contested in many Muslim-majority countries including Iran, Algeria, Tunisia and Pakistan. (Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)