Activists hold a National Wear V-neck Day gathering in response to seminars led by the Malaysian government on “spotting gay symptoms,” in Kuala Lumpur, September 30, 2012.

© 2012 Reuters

A Malaysian sharia court today postponed the scheduled caning of two women, charged with engaging in lesbian sex acts, until September 3, 2018 due to “technical issues.” The Terengganu Sharia court had convicted the women to six strokes with a rattan cane within the court premises.

But no “technical” fix makes this punishment acceptable. Caning as punishment for a criminal offense is a form of torture. It’s also as an affront to human dignity. The Sharia court judge who sentenced the two women told them they were being made examples of as a lesson for all society.  

Malaysia’s criminal law broadly polices people’s bodies and desires. The federal penal code criminalizes undefined “gross indecency” and “[c]arnal intercourse against the order of nature,” which is defined as penile-anal or penile-oral sex and can be punished by 20 years in prison and, like many offenses in Malaysia, by caning.

Malaysia’s 13 states and its federal territory also outlaw same-sex sexual relations under state Sharia (syariah, or Islamic law) ordinances, which apply only to Muslims and are enforced by state religious departments.  In Terengganu, liwat (sodomy) and musahaqah (sex between women) can result in up to three years in prison, fines, and up to six strokes with a cane.

The laws are rarely enforced, according to Malaysian activists. By one count, the federal anti-sodomy law had been used  seven times since 1938 – on four occasions against Anwar Ibrahim, who is now the ruling party’s president, but then was an opposition figure. Ibrahim has not spoken out against the scheduled caning.

Criminalizing adult consensual same-sex conduct violates internationally protected rights to privacy and non-discrimination. Caning violates customary international law prohibitions on the use of torture and other ill-treatment.

Malaysia is one of a small number of countries worldwide that has not ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Nongovernmental organizations. Malaysia’s national human rights commission, SUHAKAM, have called on the new government – which has promised rights-related reforms – to ratify the convention and incorporate its provisions into Malaysian law.

The government should act now. It should ratify the Convention against Torture, ban caning, and rescind its anti-homosexuality laws. Also, the Terengganu authorities should reverse the conviction of the two women. No one in Malaysia should be subjected to the inhumane and degrading punishment of caning, or any other punishment, for their consensual sexual behavior.