The public caning of two women who had attempted to have sexual intercourse in a car in Dungun, a district in the state of Terengganu in Malaysia, has sparked outrage amongst local and international human rights groups.
The caning of the two women, aged 22 and 32, was meted out six times in front of 100 "witnesses" yesterday (3 Sep) at the Kuala Terengganu Syariah High Court.
Deputy Asia Director of international human rights organisation Human Rights Watch Mr Phil Robertson said that "Malaysia should realize that caning is torture, full stop", and that "no one should be tortured for any reason, and certainly not for loving another adult of the same gender."
He added: "By publicly caning these two women, Terengganu officials committed an outrageous human rights violation that tarnishes the reputation of Malaysia as a rights-respecting nation."
"The federal government should take steps now to ensure this is absolutely the last time a person is caned in Malaysia for consensual sexual relations with another adult," he concluded.
Local women's rights group, Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), said it was “appalled and outraged that the authorities have publicly whipped two women for attempting to have same-sex relations”.
The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) said that “The court’s decision to whip these two women for musahaqah has led to a public outcry at the national and international levels, damaging Malaysia reputation as a moderate Muslim country.
“It also fuels the widespread belief that Islam is a religion that discriminates against women, and LGBT,” warned the coalition of 13 women’s rights organisations.
The public caning has also received flak from Malaysia's Members of Parliament.
Rembau MP Mr Khairy Jamaluddin said that although caning is enshrined in the Syariah laws, the public nature of the caning was improper, and that "there are other ways to handle the LGBT issue". He concluded that "Islam teaches us to look after the dignity of every human being, and that mercy is preferably to punishment."
Klang MP Charles Santiago said that the government and the public should "stop invading" the privacy of LGBT persons, and that "we need to stop abusing them".
"We need to grow up as a society and learn to embrace diversity," he said.
Mr Santiago has also urged the new government to repeal all laws that criminalise homosexuality as soon as possible, as the Pakatan Harapan government was voted in on the premise of inclusivity and progressiveness.
He added that the caning contradicts "the spirit of Malaysia wanting to ratify the Convention Against Torture this year".
Vice-president of the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS - Parti Islam Se-Malaysia) Mr Idris Ahmad, however, argued against the backlash, stating that activists should respect the Syariah High Court's ruling.
Speaking to reporters at the Selangor PAS headquarters on 3 Sep, he said: “These are comments from people who are well-read in terms of the law. They know that the Syariah court only applies to Muslims.
Citing Article 121 of the Federal Constitution, Mr Idris said that Syariah Courts have the jurisdiction to impose sentences on such offences.
He also urged activists to instead direct their protests to the civil courts.
Deputy president of Terengganu Syariah Lawyers Association Mr Fazru Anuar Yusof, however, said that the caning "did not look forceful" and that "proper procedure was followed, in which the caning did not break the skin”.
Chairman of Terengganu Bar Council Mr Sallehudin Harun said that he had "imagined that it would be forceful".
However, he observed that the caning "went smoothly and did not cause the accused any harm".
Minister of Islamic Affairs in the Prime Minister's Department Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa said that public caning must undergo review.
"The two or three officials present can be considered public. To me, it is a matter of technicality and can be debated," he said.
The original date of the caning was scheduled to be on 28 Aug, but was moved forward to yesterday (3 Sep).
Previously, Amnesty International Malaysia has called upon the Kuala Terengganu Syariah High Court to drop the sentences altogether instead of postponing it.
The human rights organisation's interim executive director Ms Gwen Lee said a delay was not adequate given the injustice of the sentencing, according to The Star Online.
“A delay is not enough. Both women must have their sentences quashed immediately and unconditionally to reverse this injustice once and for all,” she said.
Ms Lee added: "If Malaysia is serious about increasing its ratification of international treaties, as it has stated, it must end the use of caning and repeal the laws that impose these torturous punishments completely.”
Besides being caned yesterday, the two women were also sentenced to a fine of RM3,300, or four months' jail should they fail to pay the fine.
They were charged under Section 30 of the Syariah Criminal Offences Enactment (Takzir) (Terengganu) 2001, which was read together with Section 59(1), for musahaqah, or sexual activity and/or intercourse between women.
The two women did not appeal against their sentence despite being given the opportunity to do so.