Two Malaysian women accused of pursuing a sexual relationship were caned in an Islamic court on Monday, setting off an outcry from rights groups who said the country’s political transformation this year had done little to ensure equal treatment of all citizens.
The women, who were convicted of “sexual relations between women,” were each struck six times with a rattan cane in front of witnesses in the Shariah High Court in the state of Terengganu, officials said.
The sentence, delivered four months after an election that saw Malaysia’s governing party ousted for the first time since the country was founded in 1957, reflects the country’s deeply conservative culture despite a liberalization in its politics.
Rights groups assailed the new government for discrimination against gay men and lesbians and for continuing to allow a form of corporal punishment outlawed in most of the world.
“Caning is a form of torture, and to inflict this brutal punishment publicly on two people for engaging in consensual, same-sex relations sends Malaysia back to the Dark Ages,” Gwen Lee, interim executive director for Amnesty International Malaysia, said in a statement.
“Caning is a dreadful reminder of the depth of discrimination L.G.B.T.I. people face in the country and a sign that the new government condones the use of inhuman and degrading punishments, much like its predecessor,” Mr. Lee added.
Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation, has a justice system that includes both civil courts with jurisdiction over everyone and Shariah courts that apply only to Muslims.
The women, aged 22 and 32, were caned by a female prison officer, Malaysian news outlets reported. The older woman did not wince at the blows, but the younger woman began to sob when she was struck, the Star newspaper reported. The women were not identified in local news reports.
Representatives of the Terengganu government and Shariah law advocates said that the women were fully clothed while caned, and that the punishment was not meant to injure them but to provide a lesson for the public on Islamic law.
“The Shariah way of caning is not brutal and oppressive as claimed by certain quarters,” said Musa Awang, president of the Syariah Lawyers Association of Malaysia.
Other legal groups disagreed. The Malaysian Bar said the country should not tolerate caning in any form and should repeal all forms of corporal punishment.
“It is a harsh and barbaric form of punishment that causes harmful and long-lasting psychological effects, and has no place in a modern and compassionate society such as ours,” George Varughese, the president of the Malaysian Bar, said in a statement.
Charles Santiago, a lawmaker who is part of the governing coalition, said the punishment was “outrageous” and “a form of torture.” He said Malaysia had seen a worrying rise in anti-L.G.B.T. sentiment in recent months, including a violent assault by several men against a transgender woman last month.
“We need to stop targeting the L.G.B.T. community,” he said in a statement. “We need to stop invading their privacy. We need to stop abusing them. We need to grow up as a society and learn to embrace diversity.”
He called on the new government to repeal all laws that criminalize homosexuality.
One of Malaysia’s most prominent politicians, the former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, was twice imprisoned on sodomy charges that were seen as orchestrated by his political rivals, including the current prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad.
Mr. Anwar was released from prison and pardoned by Malaysia’s king in May, which allows him to hold political office again and potentially succeed Mr. Mahathir, who is now his ally, as prime minister.