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Sentencing of two women for an alleged sex act signals a setback for LGBTQ Malaysians

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The political climate toward Malaysia's LGBTI population is worsening, human rights activists fear. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

On Tuesday, two women in Malaysia were convicted of engaging in a prohibited sex act and sentenced to six strokes of caning. The judicial ruling was promulgated in Terengganu, one of only two Malaysian states that has implemented a stricter interpretation of Islamic law, and prompted immediate outrage and concern from international human rights groups.

“This deeply cruel sentence marks yet another severe setback in Malaysia’s treatment of LGBTI people, which is increasingly troubling,” said Gwen Lee, Amnesty International Malaysia’s Interim Executive Director in a statement. “As well as immediately overturning this brutal sentence, the Malaysian authorities must repeal the laws that impose these torturous punishments and ratify the U.N. Convention against Torture.”

Homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia, with a prohibition on sodomy first introduced by the British during the colonial era. LGBTQ activists say the climate of hate is worsening, driven in part by the country’s shift towards embracing a more conservative interpretation of Islam, and at least two gay or trans Malaysians were murdered in 2017. In February a leading Malaysian newspaper published a “how to spot a gay” checklist, a move that some LGBTQ Malaysians feared would further put their lives at risk.

Malaysia is becoming a more politically and religiously repressive place, say some experts. In recent years Malaysia’s government has cracked down on freedom of expression, including by arresting human rights researchers and punishing or censoring newspapers that criticize elected officials, according to Human Rights Watch. Both Terengganu and a second state, Kelantan, are currently governed by the Islamic Party of Malaysia, and residents there are subject to particularly restrictive regulations around appropriate dress and behavior.

Malaysian and international human rights activists were hopeful that the most recent national elections would offer a turning point for the country. In May, 93-year-old Mahathir Mohamad defeated incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak, who had been accused of stealing almost $700 million from a state development fund and attempting to gerrymander the electoral map in his favor. Mohamad promised to protect minority rights if elected.

“This unprecedented power shift in Malaysian politics is a huge opportunity for the country to eradicate repressive policies and put human rights at the heart of its future,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Amnesty International’s Malaysia Researcher, in a statement released just after the election.

Yet almost immediately, LGBTQ activists were disappointed. In June, Numan Afifi, the interim press secretary to Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, was forced to quit after being attacked online for his vocal support of gay rights. “Letting go of Numan Afifi due to his sexual orientation is a betrayal of those of us who bought into this promise,” Pang Kee Teik, a prominent Malaysian gay rights activist, wrote on Twitter.

The two women sentenced to flogging, aged 22 and 32, were arrested in April after they were found together in a car in a public square in Terengganu. "This is a serious case. The prosecutors urged the court to impose the maximum sentence,” said Mohamad Khasmizan Abdullah, a prosecutor with the Terengganu religious department, in an interview with Agence France-Presse. He added that if the sentence were carried out, the women would be the first to be caned in Terengganu for violating Islamic law.

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia condemned the court’s decision, saying the proposed punishment was “humiliating, demeaning, and an attempt to publicly embarrass the women and their families.”

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