MALAYSIA'S first public caning held in a courtroom at the Terengganu Syariah High Court today marks a dark chapter in this nation’s history.
The harsh sentence of six strokes carried out in a public courtroom demonstrated abhorrently little regard for the dignity of the two women who were sentenced under Section 30 and 59(1) of the Syariah Criminal Offences (Takzir Terengganu).
The caning proceeded despite huge protests by diverse actors in civil society, and clear recommendations by human rights and legal advocates to end the practice of whipping and caning in the criminal justice system as they are forms of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment.
What transpired today was a spectacle executed in front of more than 100 attendees who gathered in the courtroom to witness the event. The women were hounded by the media the moment they arrived at the Terengganu Syariah High Court.
Leading up to the execution, news circulated on social media with some parties calling on members of the public to attend the session in support of state action against the LGBT community.
This included incitement by the state government agency, Institut Modal Insan Terengganu Sejahtera (i-MITS) for mass attendance as a sign of “anti-LGBT solidarity”.
The lead up to, and unfolding of this event, signal an alarming increase in the targeting of marginalised individuals. It also signals the state’s complicity in inciting public participation in violence, and the normalizing of violence as a form of education.
Presiding judge, Amarul Azmi, told the courtroom that the execution was intended as a reminder and deterrent to members of society. This was reiterated by the Terengganu executive councillor in charge of syariah implementation, Saiful Bahri Mamat, at a press conference later.
They added the execution was to demonstrate to the public how syariah caning is supposedly ‘kinder’ compared to caning executed under civil law. Remarks by the judges and state exco that the syariah caning is not intended to cause pain or harm the women is in direct contradiction to the degree of humiliation they faced today from the orchestrated spectacle, and the resulting psychological and emotional impact.
The state’s actions here are responsible for the violence of the trauma, and humiliation caused on the two women as well as the society at large.
The caning was executed by officers from the Malaysian Prison Department, an agency under the federal Ministry of Home Affairs. Observing from the courtroom public gallery, it was evident that the strength of caning of the two women differed, as one person was clearly caned harder than the other.
State exco Saiful Bahri Mamat acknowledged there was noticeable discrepancy in the caning, but said issues surrounding the execution was under the jurisdiction of the Prison Department. This raises serious concerns regarding the uneven and unacceptable standards for accountability in the execution of justice under the syariah legal system and the legal justice systems in this country.
Saiful said today’s execution should pave the way for future canings under syariah law. He did not rule out the use of public caning in other cases, and the sentence can be carried out in any location determined by the court as outlined by section 125 of the Syariah Criminal Procedure Enactment 2001.
The judge and the state exco emphasized that the two women had pleaded guilty and accepted the punishment, as they did not file an appeal within 14 days, indicating their sincerity and sense of repentance. It is vital to note that the two women had no legal representation, which grossly impacts on the protection of their right to fair trial and justice and the resulting long-term impact.
Despite this critical lack, the court proceeded with the execution which is now the most degrading and cruel form of public sentencing in Malaysia’s history. LGBT persons have limited access to redress and justice.
Finding a syariah lawyer for LGBT-related cases is extremely challenging. This is compounded by other factors including lack of family support, social stigma and lack of resources due to multiple forms of discrimination.
This case demonstrates multiple failures in the justice system, the complicity and intention by the state to target and persecute already marginalised members of the community, and to create conditions for public acceptance of violent and humiliating treatment cloaked in the ironic language of ‘kindness’ and ‘compassion.’ It sets a dangerous precedent for the increased policing of morality and sexual identities in Malaysia.
The recognition and protection of human dignity is a fundamental principle enshrined in the Federal Constitution, widely ratified human rights instruments, as well as in all religions.
There is no justification for the deliberate humiliation, harm and degradation that took place in the Terengganu Court today.