Picture: AP Photo/Heri Juanda

Kuala Terengganu - Two Malaysian women were caned Monday for having lesbian sex in violation of strict Islamic laws, despite an outcry from activists at the "cruel and unjust" punishment.

The case has sparked widespread condemnation and focused attention on what rights groups say is a deteriorating climate for the gay community in the Muslim-majority country.

Campaigners said it was the first time that women in Malaysia have been caned for violating a sharia regulation which forbids same-sex relations.

The country operates a dual-track legal system and Islamic courts can handle religious and family matters for Muslim citizens, as well as cases such as adultery.

The women, aged 22 and 32, were arrested in April by Islamic enforcement officers after they were found in a car in a public square in northern Terengganu state, one of the country's most conservative areas.

The pair, whose identities have not been revealed, pleaded guilty last month to breaking Islamic laws and were sentenced to six strokes of the cane each and a fine of 3 300 ringgit (about R11 700).

They were caned at the Sharia High Court in Kuala Terengganu, state capital of Terengganu, a court official confirmed to AFP.

The women's conviction sparked a storm of criticism. Before the caning was carried out, Gwen Lee, Amnesty International's Malaysia head, slammed the punishment as "cruel and unjust".

Malaysia "must end the use of caning and repeal the laws that impose these torturous punishments completely," she said.

Thilaga Sulathireh, from transgender rights group Justice for Sisters, said the caning would "increase the impunity of perpetrators to carry out acts of violence" aimed at gay people.

Concerns have been mounting in recent weeks in Malaysia, a multi-ethnic country where some 60 percent of the population is Muslim, about a deteriorating climate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

The Islamic affairs minister has spoken out against homosexuals and ordered pictures of LGBT activists to be removed from a public exhibition, while a transgender woman was brutally attacked in the southern state of Negeri Sembilan.

Malaysian Muslims have traditionally practised a tolerant brand of Islam but concerns have been growing in recent years that attitudes are becoming more conservative.