CANING of convicts and asylum-seekers in Malaysian prisons has reached “epidemic proportions”, according to Amnesty International.
The London-based human rights group has called for the abandonment of the practice, which it says amounts to torture and is often inflicted so severely that flesh is torn off the body.
However, prison officials defended the whippings as lawful.
Malaysian courts mete out caning – a remnant from British colonial laws – to punish severe offences such as rape, robbery, drug possession and corruption. Up to 24 strokes are given with a thick rattan stick.
Since 2002, caning has also been used to punish immigration offences, such as illegally entering the country. Amnesty estimated that some 10,000 people are caned each year, many of them illegal immigrants.
Amnesty interviewed dozens of convicts earlier this year for its 50-page report “A Blow to Humanity – Torture by Judicial Caning in Malaysia”.
Prisoners told Amnesty they were lined up and watched or heard one another’s caning.
The cane “shreds the victim’s naked skin, turns the fatty tissue into pulp, and leaves permanent scars that extend all the way to muscle fibres. Blood and flesh splash off the victim’s body, often accompanied by urine and faeces,” the report said.
Supri Hashim, an official with Malaysia’s Prison Department, rejected the accusation of torture, saying the whippings are carefully supervised by prison authorities and attended by doctors.
“The role of the Prison Department is to enforce and execute any sentence passed by the court … based on Malaysian law,” he said.
Malaysia says caning is a deterrent. Neighbouring Singapore also canes criminals and vandals regularly, citing the same reason.
Amnesty said the practice could cause long-term disabilities and trauma.
“Caning in Malaysia has hit epidemic proportions,” Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific director Sam Zarifi said in a statement. “In every case that we examined, the punishment amounted to torture, which is absolutely prohibited under any circumstances.”
It said many of the foreigners sentenced to caning did not get legal representation or understand the charge. Those who are caned are tied to a scaffold while wearing only a loincloth. Specially trained officers are paid a bonus for each stroke, the report said.
“They don’t tell you what day you’ll be whipped. You just know your number is coming closer,” the report quotes a Malaysian caned for heroin possession.
“I felt like an animal (when tied to the scaffold). I was shaking with fear,” the report quotes a refugee from Burma. Many asylum-seekers are caned for having illegally entered Malaysia.
Such caning is administered under criminal laws that are separate from Malaysia’s Islamic laws, which also prescribe whipping for religious offences. But Islamic caning is largely symbolic and administered with a thin stick.
In 2008, a Muslim woman was sentenced to caning by an Islamic court for drinking alcohol in public. The punishment was later commuted.