Malaysian authorities said Wednesday that officials caned four Muslim men and, for the first time, three Muslim women earlier this month on a conviction of having sex out of wedlock.
The move to cane the women under the country's Islamic Shariah laws has raised fresh concerns about the growing political and judicial influence of Islam in what traditionally has been one of the world's more moderate Muslim nations.
The vibrant, resource-rich country came under intense international scrutiny last year after a Shariah court sentenced 32-year-old Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno to be caned after she was caught drinking beer in a hotel bar. Many moderate Muslims and non-Muslim Malaysians saw that verdict as reflecting the growing reach of Islam in Malaysia over the past several years. The caning of Kartika, who is a Muslim, still hasn't been carried out despite her requests to the Islamic courts to get it over with.
Wednesday's announcement that three Muslim women were caned on Feb. 9 for having illicit sex thus came as a shock to many Malaysians. "This was a big a surprise. We had no idea this was going to happen," said Ragunath Kesavan, president of the Malaysian Bar Council. "We were always told Ms. Kartika would be the first."
Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein waited nine days before announcing the punishment at a news conference following the government's weekly cabinet meeting Wednesday. He didn't provide details of the women's identities. Later in the day, Hishammuddin said in a statement that four men also were sentenced and caned in connection with the case. They also weren't identified. All seven were found guilty of illicit sex and sentenced by a Shariah court in the Kuala Lumpur area between December 2009 and January this year.
"I hope this will not be misunderstood, so that it defiles the sanctity of Islam," Hishammuddin said. "The punishment is to teach and give a chance to those who have fallen off the path to return and build a better life in the future."
Two of the women and the four men were struck six times, while the other woman was struck four times.
Hishammuddin said that a doctor was present at the canings, which took place in male and female prisons, and that the offenders weren't tied or handcuffed. The women were seated while they were struck, and no injuries were reported. The idea, the officials previously have said, is to humiliate rather than injure-unlike the canings administered to drug pushers and other violators of civil laws, which can sometimes leave deep scars.
The offenders, Hishammuddin said, were then "advised to repent and get closer to Allah."
Malaysia has a two-track legal system in which Shariah laws are applied to its majority Muslim population, while its large ethnic-Chinese and Indian minorities answer only to civilian courts. Political analysts say the rapid growth of Malaysia's Shariah court system in recent years, however, is threatening to undermine the country's reputation as a tolerant, progressive Muslim nation that has been able to attract sizable foreign investments in manufacturing and services.
"As Shariah courts expand their reach, there is a question of jurisdiction- about whether there should be corporal punishment at all," Kesavan, the bar council president, said. "We think it is degrading, and as Malaysia evolves towards adopting international standards in other areas, we should observe international standards in legal matters, too."