KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Thursday criticized the public caning of two Muslim women for attempting to have sex, saying it tarnished Islam's reputation as a merciful and compassionate religion.
Mahathir made the comment after the rare caning of the two women in an Islamic court on Monday, which was witnessed by more than 100 people. Lawmakers and rights groups criticized the punishment as a form of torture.
Mahathir said the Cabinet in a meeting Thursday felt the caning "did not reflect the justice or compassion of Islam." He said the women could have been given a lighter sentence and counseling since it was their first offense.
"It gives a bad image to Islam," Mahathir said in a video posted on social media. "It is important for us to show that Islam is not a vicious religion that likes to punish and humiliate people."
Mahathir, who won a stunning election victory in May, said Muslims greet each other "in the name of Allah who is most merciful and compassionate" but the caning gave a message that there was no mercy in Islam.
The women, aged 22 and 32, were arrested in April and pleaded guilty in an Islamic court. They were given six strokes by a light rattan cane on their covered backs by female prison officers in a Shariah court in northeast Terengganu, a state ruled by a conservative Islamic party.
Human rights groups slammed the punishment as a setback for human rights and said it could worsen discrimination against people in Malaysia's lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender community.
Homosexual activity is illegal under both Islamic and Malaysian secular laws, which are seldom enforced. Women cannot be whipped under civil laws. Islamic officials defended the caning, saying it wasn't painful, unlike caning under civil laws, and was meant to educate the women so they would repent, not to hurt them.
Malaysia follows a dual-track justice system. Nearly two-thirds of Malaysia's 31 million people are Muslims who are governed by Islamic courts in family, marriage and personal issues.
Malaysia is seen as a moderate and stable Muslim-majority country, but Islamic conservatism is on the rise.
The caning occurred amid a climate of fear and discrimination against Malaysia's LGBT community. A few weeks ago, authorities removed the portraits of two LGBT rights activists from a public exhibition. Malaysia religious minister Mujahid Yusuf later said the government doesn't support the promotion of LGBT culture.
A transgender woman was also beaten up by a group of people in a southern state this month.