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Outcry in Malaysia over two women sentenced to caning for lesbian sex

LGBTQ people are routinely persecuted in Malaysia, and activists say intolerance has increased in recent years in the Muslim-majority country.

KUALA LUMPUR - Human rights activists called Tuesday on Malaysian authorities to review a religious court decision sentencing two women to six cane strokes for having sex.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community is routinely persecuted in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where they are seen as a threat to conservative values.

Media on Sunday said the women were charged under Islamic laws forbidding lesbian sex at the Shariah High Court in Terengganu, a conservative state ruled by the Islamist opposition party Pan-Malaysian Islamist Party (PAS).

The women, aged 32 and 22, pleaded guilty and were sentenced to caning and a 3,300 ringgit ($806) fine, according to the Malay-language newspaper Sinar Harian.

“Adequate punishment must be meted out so that this becomes a lesson and reminder to not just the two of you, but the members of society,” the daily quoted Shariah judge Kamalruazmi Ismail as saying.

Reuters’ calls to the Shariah High Court in Terengganu were not answered.

Malaysia’s minister for religious affairs was overseas and could not be reached for comment, his spokesman said.

Amnesty International Malaysia said caning amounted to torture and called on the government to repeal laws that impose punishment against marginalized communities.

The court ruling indicated a “concerning climate” of LGBTQ discrimination and a “growing threat on the lives and the safety” of LGBTQ people in Malaysia, the group’s interim executive director, Gwen Lee, said in a statement to Reuters.

Malaysia describes oral and anal sex as against the order of nature. Civil law stipulates jail for up to 20 years, caning and fines for offenders.

Muslims are also governed by state-level Islamic laws, most of which carry provisions outlawing gay and lesbian sex.

A coalition of Malaysian human rights organizations said in a joint statement it was concerned about the impact of the sentence not only on the two women but on the wider LGBTQ community.

“Consensual sex acts between adults is not a crime,” said the coalition, which included transgender rights group Justice for Sisters and the All Women’s Action Society.

Activists say intolerance toward the LGBTQ community has increased in recent years in Malaysia.

Last week, authorities removed the portraits of two LGBTQ activists from a public photography exhibition, saying they promoted LGBTQ activities.

In February, a newspaper article detailing how to identify LGBTQ individuals sparked outrage on social media.