KUALA LUMPUR - A Malaysian state amended its Islamic laws on Wednesday to allow public canings, sparking criticism that the change was unconstitutional and could infringe on the rights of religious minorities.
Ethnic Malay Muslims make up more than 60 per cent of Malaysia's 32 million people and attempts to implement stricter forms of sharia law in recent years have raised concerns among members of the ethnic Chinese, Indian and other minorities.
The new law was approved in the state assembly of Kelantan, which is governed by a conservative Islamist party, PAS, and where nightclubs and cinemas are banned.
The northeastern state has been pushing for the adoption of a strict Islamic penal code, called 'hudud', that would provide for punishments such as stoning for adultery and amputations for theft.
The amendment allowing public caning was passed as part of an effort to streamline sentencing under Islamic criminal law, Kelantan deputy chief minister Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah was quoted as saying by the Bernama state news agency.
"Caning can now be carried out inside or outside of prison, depending on the court's decision," Mohd Amar said, according to Bernama.
"This is in line with the religion, which requires that sentencing must be done in public." He did not say exactly what crimes would be punished by caning but the list would likely include adultery.
Islamic law is implemented in all Malaysian states but is restricted to family issues such as divorce and inheritance, as well as sharia crimes involving Muslims, such as consuming alcohol and adultery.
Criminal cases are handled by federal law.
Ti Lian Ker, a member of the Malaysian Chinese Association, part of the ruling coalition, said public canings were unconstitutional under federal criminal law.
"This is a rewriting of our legal system and spells a bleak future for the nation," he said in a statement.
Last year, the PAS introduced a bill that would expand the powers of sharia courts and incorporate parts of hudud into the existing legal system.
The bill is expected to be debated in parliament when it reconvenes later this month.
Critics of the bill say the implementation of hudud could infringe on the rights of religious minorities and disrupt the fabric of Malaysia's multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.