Advocacy organizations are calling on Malaysian authorities to suspend the punishment of two women sentenced for having lesbian sex.
In a statement released Wednesday, Amnesty International claimed the Southeast Asian country should drop charges against two women arrested in April after Terengganu police discovered them together in a car parked in a public square. Reports broke earlier this week that the pair — who have not been named in press coverage — were each sentenced to six strokes of the cane as a result. They also face an $800 fine.
If the couple declines to pay the penalty, they face up to four months in prison.
“This deeply cruel sentence marks yet another severe setback in Malaysia’s treatment of LGBTQ people, which is increasingly troubling,” claimed Gwen Lee, Amnesty International Malaysia’s Interim Executive Director, in a statement. “Across the country, LGBTQ people are facing a climate of growing discrimination and persecution.”
The international human rights group added that the harsh punishment affirms that “Malaysia is becoming a more hostile place for its LGBTQ population.”
Terengganu prosecutors noted the punishment was a first in the north-central state. Although sodomy is punishable with up to 20 years in prison under Section 377A of the Malaysian Penal Code, prosecutions for offenses “against the order of nature” were at one time relatively rare.
But a national turn toward religious conservatism in recent years has increasingly placed LGBTQ people in the crosshairs.
After government health officials held a contest encouraging young people to submit videos on the “prevention” of homosexuality, reports broke in January that federal authorities were funding conversion therapy clinics for transgender women. A Terengganu council member claimed the goal was to “give [trans people] a path to make the best choices for their lives.”
“Transgender women are part of our society,” councilman Ghazali Taib told the AFP. “They are our responsibility.
Last week, the Islamic affairs minister ordered the portraits of two LGBTQ activists be removed from an art exhibition held on Penang Island. He accused organizers of the “Stars and Strokes” exhibit of promoting “LGBTQ culture in Malaysia.”
But after these repeated assaults on queer and trans people in the nation of 32 million, advocates are taking action. Justice For Sisters (JFS), a transgender advocacy group in Malaysia, claimed this week’s sentencing amounts to “a gross violation” of the lesbian couple’s right to dignity and privacy.
“The role of the court is to ensure justice is served and upheld, not to increase victimisation of persons based on personal prejudice,” the organization said in a statement.
“Punishment cannot be used as lessons for society,” JSD continued. “Punishment as a means to serve as lessons for others unfairly exploits and burdens the individuals with severe punishments as stand-ins for others. Such prejudicial thinking can dangerously allow for the abuse of power and exploitation of innocent people, perpetuating injustices.”
The statement was co-signed by a coalition of advocacy organizations, including All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), Association for Women Lawyers (AWL), Malaysian Atheists and Secular Humanists (MASH), and Pelangi Campaign, a leading LGBTQ group in Malaysia.
OutRight International, a human rights group based in the U.S., added that caning amounts to “torture.”
“Two adults engaging in consensual sex should never be punished,” claimed OutRight Deputy Director Maria Sjödin in a statement to INTO. “Caning these two women amounts to torture and is a clear human rights violation. Malaysian authorities must stop this barbaric punishment.”
Advocates estimate that more than 10,000 people are caned in Malaysia every year, although the punishment takes place outside of the public eye.
But despite growing international pressure, Malaysian authorities are unlikely to drop the sentence. Noting that “sexual intercourse between people of the same sex is forbidden in Islam,” Terengganu religious department prosecutor Mohamad Khasmizan Abdullah called sodomy “morally wrong,”
“The caning would be carried out within the court premise,” he told Reuters. “Under the sharia rules, they will be whipped with a rattan cane on their back with their clothes on while they are seated.”
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