Malaysian gay rights activists challenge government in court to quash ban on arts festival

Published: January 9, 2012

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Activists launched a rare legal case Tuesday aimed at fostering gay rights in Malaysia by challenging a police ban on an anti-homophobia arts festival.

The case highlights complaints about discrimination against gays at a time when international rights groups are urging authorities in Muslim-majority Malaysia to abolish laws criminalizing same-sex relations.

The acquittal this week of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on charges of sodomizing a male former aide prompted Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to criticize the Malaysian government for insisting on laws that make sodomy punishable by 20-year prison sentences.

Organizers of a “Sexual Independence” festival held annually in Malaysia since 2008 filed a petition in the High Court in hopes of overturning a ban imposed last year on the relatively low-key event, which was supposed to feature musical performances, talks on sexuality issues and a poster exhibition.

Police ordered activists to scrap the event after Muslim organizations complained it could disrupt public peace. Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin called the festival “inappropriate.”

The festival’s organizers said in a statement Tuesday that the ban was unconstitutional, adding that attempts “to prevent us from expressing ourselves are irrefutable evidence of the discrimination” against gays and transsexuals.

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