Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Thursday decried the public caning of two women in Terengganu state this week, saying it tarnished the image of Islam as he called for lighter sentences to prevent a repetition of the case.
The women each received six strokes of the cane after pleading guilty to charges linked to allegedly attempting to have sex in a parked car in the religiously conservative Terengganu. The caning, which took place inside a courtroom at the Terengganu Sharia High Court, was witnessed by more than 100 people, including government officials and journalists.
“What’s important is to show that Islam is not a ruthless religion that dishes out sentences that humiliate people. This is not what Islam encourages,” Mahathir said in a video posted on Facebook.
His cabinet had determined that the punishment meted out by the Sharia court was harsh, considering the two women were first-time offenders, he said.
“That is why we are of the opinion that even if there are such cases, consideration should be given to the circumstances, in Islam we can give lighter sentences,” according to Mahathir.
Islam is the dominant religion in multi-ethnic and multi-faith Malaysia. The country has a dual justice system made up of federal courts and Sharia courts that function separately.
Awang Azman Awang Pawi, a sociologist with the Academy of Malay Studies at Universiti Malaya, said any changes to Malaysia’s Sharia court system would require support from the Malay-Muslim majority.
“Just because it is seen as cruel doesn’t change the fact that many Muslims believe that it is part of the Islamic faith,” Awang said.
On Tuesday, Mahathir’s expected successor, Anwar Ibrahim, criticized the caning of the women in Terengganu.
“I’m a practicing Muslim, I don’t share that interpretation and certainly that sort of action to publicly cane without proper due process and understanding, and [a] show of compassion is something most Malaysians do not accept,” he said.
Anwar helped lead the Pakatan Harapan alliance from a prison cell to an upset victory over Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional coalition in the May general election. Following the victory that put Mahathir in charge of the government, Anwar received a full pardon on a second sodomy conviction.
While Anwar was challenging the punishment, the state government in Kelantan, which is controlled by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), said it was considering performing canings in a stadium.
Chief Minister Ahmad Yakob said caning was allowed, following last year’s amendment to the Kelantan Sharia Criminal Procedure Enactment of 2002 to allow the punishment to be carried out in public.
“Among the suggestions were in a closed hall, within the compound of a mosque or a stadium,” Ahmad told reporters.