Two Malaysian women caned under Islamic law for lesbian sex

Two Malaysian women were caned on Monday for having lesbian sex in violation of strict Islamic laws, despite an outcry from activists at the "cruel and unjust" punishment.

The women, dressed in white dresses and Muslim headscarves, were each given six strokes as they sat on stools in the Sharia High Court in Kuala Terengganu, state capital of Terengganu.

A judge read out their sentence just before 10:00 and then officials meted out the punishment using thin canes in front of a packed courtroom, according to a journalist in the court.

The younger woman sobbed but the elder one showed no reaction.

The case has sparked widespread condemnation and focused attention on what rights groups say is a deteriorating climate for the gay community in the Muslim-majority country.

Campaigners said it was the first time that women in Malaysia have been caned for violating a sharia regulation which forbids same-sex relations.

The country operates a dual-track legal system and Islamic courts can handle religious and family matters for Muslim citizens, as well as cases such as adultery.

The women, aged 22 and 32, were arrested in April by Islamic enforcement officers after they were found in a car in a public square in northern Terengganu state, one of the country's most conservative areas.

The pair, whose identities have not been revealed, pleaded guilty last month to breaking Islamic laws and were sentenced to six strokes of the cane each and a fine of $800.

The women's conviction sparked a storm of criticism. Before the caning was carried out, Gwen Lee, Amnesty International's Malaysia head, slammed the punishment as "cruel and unjust".

Malaysia "must end the use of caning and repeal the laws that impose these torturous punishments completely", she said.

Thilaga Sulathireh, from transgender rights group Justice for Sisters, said the caning would "increase the impunity of perpetrators to carry out acts of violence" aimed at gay people.

Concerns have been mounting in recent weeks in Malaysia, a multi-ethnic country where some 60% of the population is Muslim, about a deteriorating climate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

The Islamic affairs minister has spoken out against homosexuals and ordered pictures of LGBT activists to be removed from a public exhibition, while a transgender woman was brutally attacked in the southern state of Negeri Sembilan.

'Grave rights violation'

The punishment sparked a further barrage of criticism, with Malaysian rights group Women's Aid Organisation saying it was "outraged and appalled by this grave violation of human rights.

"Sexual acts between two consenting adults should not be criminalised, let alone punished with whipping."

Amnesty International said it was a "dreadful reminder of the depth of discrimination LGBT people face in the country and a sign that the new government condones the use of inhuman and degrading punishments, much like its predecessor".

Court official Wan Abdul Malik Wan Sidek defended the punishment, saying it was not as tough as caning carried out for numerous crimes under Malaysia's civil law.

Caning under Islamic law is carried out with a relatively thin cane on subjects who are fully clothed and is more about humiliation than causing pain.

A reformist alliance took power in Malaysia at historic May elections, fuelling hopes that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people might face less discrimination in a country where authorities have routinely targeted them in the past.

But instead, campaigners say the environment for homosexuals appears to have deteriorated markedly. 

Malaysian Muslims have traditionally practised a tolerant brand of Islam, but concerns have been growing in recent years that attitudes are becoming more conservative.

Lesbian sex is illegal for Muslims in Malaysia under Islamic laws, but not for the country's substantial minorities of ethnic Chinese and Indians.

Sodomy is a crime for all ethnic groups under a law dating back to British colonial rule, although the statute is rarely enforced.

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