Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad yesterday denounced the caning of two women convicted of having lesbian sex in violation of strict Islamic laws, after the punishment sparked a storm of criticism.
The pair were caned in front of more than 100 spectators in an Islamic court Monday, with one of the women breaking down in tears, after they admitted breaching rules that forbid homosexual relations.
The punishment in conservative northern Terengganu state marked the first time women have been caned for same-sex relations in Muslim-majority Malaysia, according to campaigners, and heightened fears about a worsening climate for the country's homosexuals.
Mahathir added his voice to growing criticism, saying he had discussed the issue with his cabinet and they felt the caning "does not reflect justice and tolerance in Islam".
"This gives a bad image of Islam and we believe that if there are similar cases like this we need to consider giving lighter punishments," he said.
"It is crucial we show Islam is not a cruel religion... that humiliates people."
Mahathir said as it was a first offence for the women, they should have been given advice rather than being caned.
The women, aged 22 and 32, were arrested in April by Islamic enforcement officers after they were found in a car in a public square.