KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Human Rights Watch urged Malaysia's government Wednesday to rescind a ban on an annual gay arts festival and amend criminal laws that it said discriminated against homosexuals.
The "Sexual Independence" festival was launched in 2008 to promote gay rights in the Muslim-majority nation and was held without interference for three years. But it drew growing criticism this year from politicians and religious leaders after awareness of the event became widespread.
This year's festival was due to start Wednesday, but police banned it last week on grounds of national security after several Muslim groups threatened to launch protests against the event.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said police showed no evidence that the five-day event, to be held in a private art center, would disturb public order.
"The banning of this festival violates basic rights to freedom of association and expression guaranteed by international human rights law and the Malaysian constitution," the group said in a letter to Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The ban contradicted Najib's call to promote unity in diversity and indicated that a "discriminatory, homophobic agenda persists" within the government, the group said. It urged Malaysia to overturn a decades-old law that makes sexual relations between same-sex adults punishable by 20 years in prison.
Najib and his aides couldn't be reached immediately for comments.
Gay rights activists had said the festival was meant to counter widespread homophobia in this socially conservative Muslim-majority nation, where a young gay man received death threats last year after posting a YouTube clip defending his sexuality.
The agenda for this year's festival, themed "Queer Without Fear," included talks on sexuality, an art exhibition and a makeup workshop by a drag queen.
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, currently on trial for sodomy, earlier this week joined the public outcry over the ban and said he supported the movement's right to free expression.