The punishments came amid the new Malaysian government's rising rhetoric against homosexuality and follows weeks of attacks against members of the LGBT community. In the past weeks, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, minister in the prime minister's department, told reporters that the government under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was elected in May, does not recognize the LGBT community and focuses instead on helping LGBT people toward the “right path” through campaigns, seminars and camps.
About 150 people were reportedly inside the courtroom during the caning. Representatives of the Terengganu government said the punishments, which the Star newspaper described not as whipping but as a “forceful tap,” were meant to educate and not inflict pain.
"I was confused about it before because we imagined that it would be forceful but after seeing it today, it puts the Syariah court in a positive light and this issue shouldn't be exaggerated,” Terengganu Bar Council Chairman Sallehudin Harun told the Star. “The sentencing went smoothly and did not cause the accused any harm."
Satiful Bahri Mamat, a member of the Terengganu state executive council, said the punishment was the first to be carried out in a public setting.
"Sharia criminal procedure allows the court to determine where the sentence will be carried out, and requires that it must be witnessed by a number of other Muslims,” Satiful told Reuters, referring to Islamic law. He added: “The reason it is carried out in public is for it to serve as a lesson to society."
Others disagree. George Varughese, president of the Malaysian Bar, said such punishments are “barbaric” and inflict lasting psychological harm.
"The Malaysian Bar unreservedly opposes corporal punishment, including caning. . . . Under international human rights law, corporal punishment constitutes a form of torture,” Varughese said in a statement calling for an immediate moratorium on all forms of corporal punishment. “There is empirical evidence to show that it has failed as a retributory and deterrent sentence."
Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Amnesty International's Malaysia researcher, said the women's sentences are a reminder of the “depth of discrimination and criminalization” that LGBT people face in the country, and a sign that the new government that promised reform condones “degrading” punishments like its predecessor.
"People should not live in fear because of who they are and who they love — the Malaysia authorities must immediately repeal repressive laws, outlaw torturous punishments and ratify the UN Convention against Torture,” Chhoa-Howard said in a statement.
Charles Santiago, a member of Parliament and of the country's governing coalition, said the punishment came amid a rise in anti-LGBT sentiment in Malaysia, citing as an example the case of a transgender woman who was beaten by eight men last month.
"One would think that such a sentence would only be meted out in Saudi Arabia,” Santiago said in a statement.
The women were punished after they were seen engaging in sexual activity in a car, Santiago said.
"We need to stop targeting the LGBT community. We need to stop invading their privacy. We need to stop abusing them. We need to grow up as a society and learn to embrace diversity,” he said. The new government, he added, was voted in “on the premise of inclusion” and must repeal laws that criminalize homosexuality.
The women were sentenced Aug. 12. They were also fined roughly $800.