KUALA LUMPUR : 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.

Malaysia's image as a promoter of 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.

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.