Thai authorities arrested a Malaysian transgender celebrity wanted back home for dressing as a woman at a mosque, sparking calls from rights groups to block any extradition requests over fears she’ll face persecution in the Muslim-majority country.
Cosmetics entrepreneur Nur Sajat Kamaruzzaman fell afoul of Malaysian religious police in February after she failed to show up for a Sharia court hearing over a case that was brought against her for dressing up in traditional Muslim women’s clothes at a gathering at a local mosque in 2018.
Her absence from court proceedings triggered a huge search party by Malaysian police and Islamic authorities. Weeks later, Malaysian media reported she had fled the country and was seeking refuge in neighboring Thailand. News reports said she was arrested at a Bangkok condo but released on bail of $2,000.
Malaysian authorities were quoted as saying that efforts were being made to bring her back to the country, while local media outlets reported that Sajat’s passport had been cancelled and revoked. Thai immigration authorities could not be reached for comment.
Her plight has added to concerns about religious persecution in Malaysia, as well as the worsening climate for the country’s LGBTQ community.
“The Thai government needs to realize the grave danger facing Nur Sajat if she is sent back to Malaysia,” senior Thailand researcher Sunai Phasuk at Human Rights Watch told VICE World News, adding that she was registered with the UN refugee agency and authorities “must not put her in harm’s way.”
“Thailand is legally bound to respect the international law principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits returning anyone to a country where they may face persecution or serious abuses,” he added.
But Thailand does not officially recognize refugees, and those who seek shelter there normally endure a wait for resettlement by the UN in a third country. That wait is particularly troubling for those fearful of being sent back to places where they face persecution.
Sajat was charged in January for violating Sharia laws and insulting Islam, and faces up to three years in prison if convicted under Sharia law, which has broad jurisdiction for Muslim citizens. On a live broadcast to her Instagram followers months before her arrest, Sajat revealed that she had been targeted by transphobic people and received death threats after she announced her intention to leave the faith. Her accounts, with followings into the tens of thousands, have since been deactivated following her departure from Malaysia.
Religion remains one of Malaysia’s most sensitive topics, especially when it comes to Islam, the country’s official faith practiced by more than 60 percent of the population. Though the constitution enshrines freedom of worship, renouncing Islam—also often referred to as apostasy—is practically unheard of among the country’s Malay Muslim population.
Politicians continually warn followers of dire consequences should they decide to abandon their faith. Those who attempt to do so are often persecuted by religious police, jailed or sent to rehabilitation facilities.
Previously addressing Sajat’s case, the former minister for Islamic Affairs called for the public “not to overreact” but to convince her not to abandon Islam instead. “Who are we to judge her? Instead of punishing her, we should continue to persuade her nicely not to convert to another religion. That is the proper reaction,” Mujahid Yusof Rawa said.