Updated at 4:44 p.m. ET on 2018-09-05
The public caning of two women found guilty of same-sex relations by a Malaysian sharia court was carried out without due process and compassion, Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the People’s Justice Party who is poised to become the next prime minister, said Tuesday.
But as rights groups condemned the canings in the religiously conservative East Coast state of Terengganu on Monday, an official in neighboring Pahang said that state was planning to mete out the same punishment against gay Muslims who violate local Islamic laws.
“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,” Anwar told a news conference in the Philippines.
“If you are careless in making statements on this issue, you will be labeled as anti-Sharia law, secular and so on,” he added.
Anwar, who from a jail cell helped lead the opposition Pakatan Harapan alliance to a stunning victory in the May 9 general election, is expected to take over as prime minister after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad eventually hands over the reins of government as he promised.
Anwar, 71, was on a two-day social visit to Manila to meet with old friends including former President Joseph Estrada, who was impeached in 2001 and later convicted of plunder before receiving a presidential pardon. Anwar also delivered a speech before a Filipino business group.
‘No objection to it:’ Religious affairs minister
In Terengganu in April, Malaysian Islamic enforcement officers arrested the two women, aged 32 and 22, after they were allegedly found attempting to have sex in a car in a public square. They pleaded guilty last month to breaking Islamic laws and were sentenced to a fine and six strokes of the cane.
A day after about 100 people witnessed the canings, a religious-affairs official in Pahang said Islamic authorities were carrying out an in-depth study to use caning as punishment for Muslim lesbians and gays found guilty of violating local Sharia laws.
“We are studying the matter thoroughly. We’re looking to implement it here,” a source in the Pahang religious affairs department told BenarNews.
On Monday, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, Malaysia’s minister in charge of the Islamic Affairs, said the punishment meted out against the two women “did not cause any pain.”
“My take on this issue is, as long as it was conducted under the rule of law, then there is no objection to it,” Mujahid told reporters at an event outside Kuala Lumpur.
Federal Territory Minister Khalid Samad urged those who were not happy with the punishment to push for laws to be changed at the state level.
Predominantly Muslim Malaysia has a federal court system and Islamic court system that function separately.
In Islam, sexual relations between women is called Musahaqah. In Malaysia, it is punishable by caning in Johor, Penang, Sarawak and the Federal Territories.
‘Back to the dark ages’
The caning of the two women ignited widespread criticism amid concerns around the country’s growing intolerance toward the LGBT community.
On Tuesday, Phil Robertson, a deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said Terengganu officials committed an outrageous human rights violation that tarnished Malaysia’s image as a rights-respecting nation.
He urged the federal government to take steps to ensure that lesbians or gays are not punished “for consensual sexual relations with another adult.”
“No one should be tortured for any reason, and certainly not for loving another adult of the same gender,” he said.
Gwen Lee, Amnesty International Malaysia’s interim executive director, said the caning of two consensual adults “had sent Malaysia back to the dark ages” and showed that the new government was not committed to protecting the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) community in the country.
U.S. Ambassador Kamala Shirin Lakhdir also reacted.
“I am saddened by the caning of the two women in Terengganu today (Monday). I appreciate all those organizations and individuals who have spoken out for tolerance and human rights,” she told reporters.
But Musa Awang, president of the Malaysian Association of Sharia Lawyers, claimed that the punishment against the two women was carried out without compromising their dignity.
“Caning under sharia law protects the dignity of the offender. They are fully dressed and their ‘aurat’ is covered,” he said, referring to parts of the body that must be covered according to Islam.
“It is different from Western corporal punishment, where the offender is stripped and only the private parts are covered,” he said.
The last time a woman was sentenced to caning in Malaysia occurred in March 2010 in Pahang.
Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno was found guilty of violating the state’s Islamic law for drinking beer, but the Sultan of Pahang intervened and commuted her punishment to community service.