(AFP) - Malaysia said Wednesday that three women have been caned under Islamic law for having extramarital sex, in a first for the Muslim-majority country.
Officials said the three women were caned on February 9 at a women's prison outside the capital Kuala Lumpur after being convicted of "khalwat" or "close proximity" between an unmarried couple.
"I hope this will not be misunderstood until it defiles the purity of Islam," Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said according to state media.
"The punishment is to teach and give a chance to those who have fallen off the path to return and build a better life in future," he said, adding that none of the three sustained any injuries.
Hishammuddin said the three women and four men were caned following a December decision in the religious courts -- which operate in parallel to the civil system in Malaysia.
He said one woman was released from prison last Sunday while another will be freed in several days and the third will be released in June.
Malaysian Islamic authorities triggered uproar last year when they sentenced mother-of-two Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno to six strokes of the cane for drinking beer.
Her case, which was to have been the first time a woman was caned under Islamic law in Malaysia, is under review and human rights groups have urged religious authorities to reverse the sentence.
Kartika's case has been given wide media coverage but the case of the three women convicted of extramarital sex came as a surprise.
Bar Council president Ragunath Kesavan said it was worrying that the punishment had gone ahead even as the caning issue was being hotly debated by Muslim scholars, religious groups and human rights activists.
"The impression was that Kartika's case would be the first so I've got no idea what has happened," he told AFP.
"It's not as if this is the Middle East... it's not a good signal that they're sending out."
"We are against any form of corporal punishment, for men or women," he added. "The fact is that any form of whipping is barbaric."