Three women were caned on February 9, pursuant to Islamic law for committing adultery, a Malaysian minister has said. They are the first women to receive such a sentence under Islamic law in the country. Hishamuddin Tun Hussein, the Malaysian home affairs minister, said the sentences were carried out after Sharia court found them guilty of adultery. Although it is unclear what evidence or information was permitted to reach the verdict, Hishamuddin claims the punishment was “carried out perfectly” and that no woman was injured.
Two of the women were struck six times while the third received four strokes. One woman was released from prison on February 14. Another will be freed in the next few days; the third woman will be released in June 2010.
The Case of Kartika Sari Dewa Shukarno
Meanwhile the older case of Kartika Sari Dewa Shukarno, sentenced to six strokes of a rattan cane for drinking beer, is under review following widespread publicity and international criticism. The case, when first reported, raised concerns that the nation might be moving away from secularization and thus eroding the rights of some 40-45 percent of the country’s ethnic minorities.
Hishammuddin acknowledges the widespread concerns about caning women (or anyone else) but claims the recent canings demonstrate that the prisons department can carry out punishments in accordance with Islamic law. Under the sharia, women have to be whipped in a seated position by a female prison guard and be fully clothed.
“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 future,” Hishammuddin said.
London-based Amnesty International urged Malaysia to end a caning “epidemic”, saying the women’s case was “just the tip of the iceberg”. Donna Guest, the group’s deputy Asia-Pacific director, said in a statement that Malaysian authorities caned more than 35,000 mostly foreigners since 2002. “The government needs to abolish this cruel and degrading punishment, no matter what the offense,” she said.
Sisters in Islam, a local group of Muslim women activists, said the caning “constitutes further discrimination against Muslim women in Malaysia”.
The recent caning cases also raise an important question of law: Whether a religious state court can impose a caning sentence when federal law precludes women from such a punishment, while men below 50 can be punished by caning. Malaysia has a dual-track legal system with Islamic criminal and family laws, which are applicable only to Muslims, running alongside civil laws. Human rights’ advocates contend the current legal inconsistencies can be resolved by simply abolishing the practice of caning.