Monday, 19 April 2021 (Geneva, Switzerland; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) – Malaysia is facing a serious threat to human rights and the HIV response with the announcement by a cabinet minister of the government’s plans to expand the jurisdiction of religious courts and increase penalties for LGBTQ people.
IAS – the International AIDS Society – strongly condemns the existing laws regarding same-sex relationships and the proposed amendment to strengthen Act 355, from 1965, which established state-level Syriah (Sharia) courts to enforce Islamic law. If enacted, the change would allow these courts to impart even harsher sentences for same-sex conduct than the current maximum sentence permitted under federal law: up to 30 years in prison or a fine of 100,000 Malaysian ringgit and mandatory caning.
The proposal also seeks to criminalize transgender people and to designate as criminally obscene and indecent any content portraying “same sex acts”, including any non-normative gender expression. These attempts to expand the power of religious courts follow a Malaysia Federal Court ruling in February that a state law banning consensual same-sex sexual conduct was unconstitutional.
The proposed amendment is contrary to Malaysia’s National Strategic Plan For Ending AIDS, which aims at achieving “zero discrimination” and “reducing stigma and discrimination and providing social protection”, with particular attention on the needs of key populations, such as men who have sex with men.
Such measures will only reinforce stigma and discrimination against men who have sex with men and transgender people and hamper progress to ensure safe access to health services. Access to HIV testing, prevention tools and life-saving treatment among these populations is very low and will be further threatened by these enforcements.
In 2019, men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, prisoners, sex workers and transgender people, with their partners, accounted for an estimated 98% of new HIV infections in Asia and the Pacific, underscoring the urgent need for governments in the region to work with, not against, communities most vulnerable to HIV.
These latest efforts further diminish the rights of LGBTQ people and represent a growing threat across Asia.
As scientists who are active members of the Governing Council of the IAS, we join international human rights advocates in calling for governments to repeal these laws. Criminalizing LGBTQ people and other key populations is utterly incompatible with an effective HIV response.
We strongly urge the Government of Malaysia to halt the enactment of the proposed inhuman measures. We ask our colleagues in Malaysia to respect their commitments to achieving zero discrimination and ensuring a legal environment that enables men who have sex with men and transgender people to safely access HIV and other health services. This proposed amendment undermines – not supports – Malaysia’s commitment to ending the AIDS epidemic.
Adeeba Kamarulzaman, IAS President
Faculty of Medicine
University of Malaya
50603 Kuala Lumpur
Sharon Lewin, IAS President-Elect
Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity
University of Melbourne
786-798 Elizabeth Street
IAS Governing Council Asia and the Pacific Islands Regional Representatives
Unison Medicare & Research Centre
Maharukh Mansion, Alibhai Premji Marg, Grant Road
Mumbai, Maharashtra 400007
The Kirby Institute
The University of NSW
Joint Research Center for Human Retrovirus Infection
Kumamoto and Kagoshima Universities
Institute of HIV Research and Innovation (IHRI)
IAS – the International AIDS Society – leads collective action on every front of the global HIV response through its membership base, scientific authority and convening power.
Founded in 1988, the IAS is the world’s largest association of HIV professionals, with members in more than 170 countries. Working with its members, the IAS advocates and drives urgent action to reduce the impact of HIV. IAS stewards the world’s most prestigious HIV conferences: the International AIDS Conference, the IAS Conference on HIV Science and the HIV Research for Prevention Conference.
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“Criminalizing LGBTQ people and other key populations is utterly incompatible with an effective HIV response,” Adeeba Kamarulzaman, IAS President and Professor of Infectious Diseases at the University of Malaya, said. “Governments should work to repeal these, not entrench them.”