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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia is among the worst countries in the world to be a transgender person, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Thursday that detailed systematic abuses by religious authorities and police including sexual assault and extortion.
The report, based on interviews with more than 40 transgender people, blamed "increasingly vitriolic" discourse by government officials, politicians and religious leaders in the Muslim-majority country for the deterioration in rights.
Malaysia had steadily shifted towards Islamic conservatism in the past few decades, with every state introducing enactments for Muslims that criminalize "a man posing as a woman" or vice versa, the report by the U.S.-based group said. It said Malaysia, where Islamic authorities banned sex change surgery in 1982, was among only a handful of countries including Nigeria and Kuwait that criminalize transgender people.
"Malaysia is actually one of the worst countries to be a transgender because of the laws, the state-organized arrests and the hate speech by politicians," said Boris Dittric, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights program.
The report called on Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has cast himself globally as a voice of moderation, to retract a statement media said he made in 2012 that it was necessary to fight the three "-isms" of pluralism, liberalism and LGBTs.
The 73-page report included witness testimony from one transgender women who said she had been stripped and sexually assaulted by state religious department officials in 2011. Others said they had been arrested and forced to attend "counseling" sessions where Islamic officials lecture them on "being a man".
Some women said they had been jailed for up to three years, with several placed in male wards where they faced sexual assault from prisoners. Widespread discrimination by employers means a disproportionate number of transgender people end up working in the sex trade, where they face heightened risks.
Several transgender women have filed a ground-breaking court case challenging Islamic law, or sharia, in the state of Negeri Sembilan, arguing that it contravenes the federal constitution's guarantee of freedom of expression and equality. The court is expected to deliver its verdict in early November.
Reporting by Stuart Grudgings