KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia's highest court on Thursday dismissed a challenge to a ban on cross-dressing, dealing a major setback to the battle for the rights of the country's transgender community, as Islamic conservatism grows in the Southeast Asian country.
Muslim-majority Malaysia's image as a promoter of moderate Islam has eroded in recent years as authorities and political figures push for stricter measures, with cases challenging religious law in civil courts being quashed.
"After today, we are concerned over the safety and security of the transgender community," said Thilaga Sulathireh, an activist representing the transgender appellants.
"Of course we are disappointed," she added. "We sort of expected this, so we were quite prepared for this decision."
Thursday's verdict reversed a lower court's decision that gave transgender Muslims the right to cross-dress, which is prohibited by state Islamic law.
The Federal Court said it was rejecting the case on the basis of "procedural non-compliance", as proper channels had not been followed in filing it.
"The issue here is not whether the appellants were in any way prejudiced," said Judge Raus Sharif, referring to the arrests of three men for cross dressing.
"It is about the jurisdiction of the courts," Raus said, adding that other courts had no right to hear the case as it involved a state's right to enact a law.
Two years ago the country's highest court barred a Christian publication from using the word 'Allah' for Malay-speaking congregants, effectively denying use of the word to non-Muslims.
In another high-profile illustration of harsher actions, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is serving a five-year prison term for sodomy, which is illegal in Malaysia, in a case he has called politically motivated.
Aston Paiva, the lawyer for the transgender individuals, said the next step would be decided after monitoring whether enforcement of the law continued, along with further arrests.
Thursday's verdict means the ban on cross-dressing will continue, said lawyers for the religious authority of the tiny western state of Negeri Sembilan behind the arrests.
"The implication is that the state law remains unchallenged," said lead lawyer Shafee Abdullah.
Last November's verdict by Malaysia's Court of Appeal, declaring the ban on cross dressing was unconstitutional, proved a fleeting victory for the transgender community.
Lawyers and activists had hoped it would be a precedent for challenges to Islamic prohibitions on cross-dressing that fall within the jurisdiction of individual states.
Ethnic Malays, who are Muslim, form 60 percent of a population of about 30 million. Ethnic Chinese make up a quarter, with Indians a substantial minority.
(Reporting by Trinna Leong; Writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)