LGBT rights advocates slam Malaysia for prosecuting transgender women

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Human Rights Watch on Monday criticized a Malaysian Islamic court for fining nine Muslim transgender women for cross-dressing and jailing two of them for a month.

Religious authorities in northeastern Kelantan state arrested the group in a raid on June 16 and they pleaded guilty the next day, the New York-based watchdog said in a statement. Their lawyer has filed an appeal and the two sentenced to jail were released on bail pending the outcome, it said.

“The raid is the latest incident in a pattern of arbitrary arrests and harassment of transgender women in Malaysia,” it said.

Human Rights Watch has called Muslim-majority Malaysia one of the world’s worst countries for transgender people as they face constant harassment, sexual abuse and arrest by Islamic authorities.

Since the 1980s, every state has passed Shariah criminal enactments that institutionalize discrimination against transgender people. All 13 Malaysian states prohibit Muslim men from “dressing as women,” while three states also criminalize “women posing as men,” it said.

Malaysian transgender rights activist Thilaga Sulathireh said one of the nine transgender women was celebrating her birthday with family and friends in a private party at a hotel when they were detained. She said the two were sentenced to jail because they had been arrested several times previously for cross-dressing.

“Laws against cross-dressing not only deny transgender women in Malaysia their fundamental rights but also contribute to a hostile environment,” said Thilaga, who is with the Justice for Sisters group.

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Last November, three Muslim transgenders won a landmark ruling in a civil court against Shariah law banning them from cross-dressing. The Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the Shariah law in southern Negeri Sembilan state was discriminatory as it failed to recognize men diagnosed with gender identity issues and deprived transgenders of the right to live with dignity.

The state’s Islamic Religious Department has appealed the ruling to the top Federal Court, with a hearing due in August.

Figures for how many people have been arrested and sentenced under the law are not known, but Human Rights Watch last year said it interviewed transgender women who said they had been jailed from four months to three years. Several of them were placed in male wards, where they face sexual assault from both guards and other prisoners, it said.

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