Two Malaysian Muslim women convicted under Islamic Shariah law of attempting same-sex relations were given six strokes of the cane in public on Monday, with some 150 people witnessing their whipping.
The women, aged 32 and 22, who had pleaded guilty last month to the charges leveled against them, received a fine in addition to the caning, which was carried out using a light rattan cane while they were fully clothed. The incident occurred in northeast Terengganu state.
The punishment, which is banned under civil law in Malaysia, is allowed under Islamic law in the country's dual-track legal system.
The country, whose population is around 60 percent Muslim, has seen a recent rise in Islamic conservativism, with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Malaysia regularly subjected to discrimination and hostility.
'Cruel, inhuman and degrading'
Human rights organizations have condemned both the use of caning as a punishment and the fact that someone's sexual preference is treated as a crime.
Amnesty International Malaysia said the caning marked "an appalling day" for human rights in the country and in a statement called corporal punishment "a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" that might "amount to torture."
"To inflict this brutal punishment on two people for attempting to engage in consensual, same-sex relations is an atrocious setback on the government's efforts to improve its human rights records," said Rachel Chhoa-Howard, the group's Malaysia researcher.
Thilaga Sulathireh from the group Justice for Sisters also called it "a regression of human rights in Malaysia."
But the deputy president of the Muslim Lawyers' Association, Abdul Rahim Sinwan, defended the punishment, saying it was not painful or harsh and served only to educate the women and make them repent.
In a sign of growing intolerance toward the LGBT community in Malaysia, a transgender woman was beaten up by a group of people in a southern state last month.
Authorities also removed the portraits of two LGBT activists from a public exhibition a few weeks ago, with the country's religious minister, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, later saying that the government did not support the promotion of LGBT culture.
tj/msh (AP, Reuters, dpa)