KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia said on Wednesday that three women have been caned under Islamic law for having extramarital sex, in a first for the Muslim-majority country.

The case will fuel a debate over rising "Islamisation" in Malaysia, where religious courts have been clamping down on moral offences as well as a ban on Muslims consuming alcohol that had been rarely enforced.

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 illicit contact with the opposite sex.

"I hope this will not be misunderstood so much that 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.

Islamic scholars have said previously that the punishment would be carried out when the woman was fully clothed and with a cane that is smaller and lighter then the heavy length of rattan used in the civil justice system.

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 on Sunday while another would be freed in several days and the third released in June.

Islamic authorities triggered uproar last year when they sentenced mother-of-two Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno to six strokes of the cane after she was caught drinking beer in a hotel nightclub.

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 drop the sentence.

Kartika's sentence 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 said.

"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."

Kartika, a part-time model, stared down religious authorities after being convicted, saying she was ready to be caned, refusing to lodge an appeal, and challenging them to cane her in public.

Alcohol is widely available in Malaysia but is forbidden for Muslim Malays, who make up 60 percent of the population. They can be fined, caned, or jailed for up to three years but prosecutions are extremely rare.

Kartika's case has raised concerns that Islamic law is on the rise in Malaysia and that the nation's secular status is under threat, eroding the rights of minority ethnic Chinese and Indians.

Observers say that the dynamic of "political Islam" has escalated since 2008 elections that saw the long-serving Barisan Nasional coalition lose unprecedented ground to the three-member opposition alliance.

After minority voters deserted the coalition, its lead party the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) it is now vying with the conservative Islamic party PAS, an opposition member, for the votes of Malays.

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