Malaysia urged to stop caning 'epidemic'

Refugees from Burma in Malaysia

Caning as a form of judicial punishment in Malaysia has reached "epidemic" proportions and should be banned, according to a human rights group.

Blows administered to the body with a long cane are a legal punishment for more than 60 offences in the country.

Amnesty International claims at least 10,000 prisoners and 6,000 refugees are caned there each year.

The government says caning is a legal and effective deterrent from criminal activity.

Malaysia's law minister would not comment on the report but told the BBC that there are no plans to review the law.

Migrant workers

Amnesty says the practice amounts to cruel and inhumane treatment as it leaves both physical and psychological damage, and should be banned.

"Across Malaysia, government officials regularly tear into the flesh of prisoners with rattan canes travelling up to 160km/h. 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," Amnesty says in a report on the practice.

It estimates that up to 1,200 canings happen in prison centres each month. Offences that can be punished by caning include drug-related, violent and sexual offences, as well as migration violations.

Though the origins of the practice of caning lie in British colonial regulations dating back to the 19th Century, the practice has become more widespread in recent years, used by the government as a means of dealing with the influx of migrant workers who have helped fuel its booming economy, Amnesty says.

"It's expanded over the past decade," Amnesty's Sam Zarifi said. "The majority of those punished this way are illegal migrants."

As the country does not officially recognise refugee status, those who have fled their homeland to Malaysia without the correct paperwork are automatically committing a criminal offence. Many are caned before being deported, the group says.

In 2002, the group says, parliament made immigration violations such as illegal entry punishable by up to six strokes of the cane, increasing the use of the punishment in prisons and detention centres.

Mr Zarifi says that the officials who carry out the task are specially trained, and receive an additional payment for each stroke they administer.

In 2005, the report says, this bonus was tripled to 10 ringgit ($3.20; £2) per stroke. This has led to a system of bribes within prisons, where guards accept cash not to carry out the punishment, Amnesty says.

According to the report, based on interviews with some 57 prisoners, the punishment often takes place in separate, hidden areas of the detention centres. Prisoners are tied on to a specially built scaffold to keep them still while they are being hit.

Although doctors are present, Amnesty says, their function is often to revive prisoners who faint during the caning so that the full number of strokes can be administered.

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