KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Three Malaysians who became the first women to be caned under the country's Islamic laws said they "deserved" their punishment and that it would help stem sex outside marriage.
The three women were caned for having sex out of wedlock in a move that has angered human rights activists and some lawyers who say the punishments are illegal in this mainly Muslim country that runs parallel civil and Islamic justice systems.
"I deeply regret my actions as I should have married before having sex," the New Straits Times newspaper quoted one of the women who it said was aged 17, as saying in its Friday edition.
The newspaper did not reveal the womens' real names and a picture showed the three clad in traditional Malaysian dress and headscarves seated before reporters.
The 17-year old said that she had become pregnant and gone into labor while at school, losing the baby, and then had turned herself in to the authorities last December.
A second woman said she had to support her family after her father left home and had a three-year-old daughter out of wedlock. She said that she too turned herself in due to feelings of guilt.
All three women were caned on February 9 and the punishments were announced by Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein on Wednesday.
Hishammuddin said they were "carried out perfectly."
The punishment of six strokes of the rattan is carried out while the women are fully clothed and while they are seated. The person administering the punishment is not allowed to raise their arm above shoulder level.
"Even though the caning did not injure them, the three women said it caused pain within their souls," Hishammuddin said.
The caning has received widespread support from Muslim groups in this Southeast Asian country of 27 million people where around 55 percent of the population is Malay and Muslim.
"The guilty have also repented and there is no proof of injuries at all. What is the problem now?" Fadhalina Sidek, vice president of the Islamic Youth Movement was quoted as saying on the Malaysian Insider website (www.themalaysianinsider.com).
Caning is used in Malaysian prisons for other crimes.
The sentences were, however, criticized by human rights advocates and by some lawyers.
Former law minister Zaid Ibrahim called Malaysia a "lawless" state on his Facebook page and said federal laws precluded women from being caned.
The canings were carried out at a time when some political commentators have warned of a rising tide of Islamicisation in this traditionally moderate Muslim country.
The government that has ruled Malaysian for 52 years stumbled to its worst ever election losses in 2008 and has lost the support of ethnic Chinese and Indian voters who have been further unnerved by a spate of attacks on churches.
It is now competing for the votes of Malays with an opposition Islamist party that advocates setting up an Islamic state with an Islamic judicial system.
At the same time as the government battles the opposition for votes, it is trying to woo foreign capital to boost economic growth here after foreign investors withdrew $35 billion from Malaysian markers between the second quarter of 2008 and the second quarter of 2009.
An earlier caning sentence on a woman for drinking beer that has not yet been carried out triggered concern among foreign investors who questioned Malaysian Prime Minister about the issue when he spoke to fund managers in New York last year.
Editing by Sugita Katyal