A Sunni Muslim cleric in Kuwait has denied media reports that he had become the first religious authority in the country to approve gender reassignment surgery.

Iran-based English language channel Press TV had claimed Sheikh Rashid Saad Alalimi “is in defiance of a 2007 legislation which made it illegal for Kuwaitis to dress as members of the opposite sex.”

However, the Sheikh said today in a letter in a Kuwaiti newspaper that he had not issued a fatwa, or formal legal judgement, and the letter referred to by Press TV and other Iranian media was private correspondence.

While he may have privately been supportive, a fatwa would require experts to give testimony and various other formalities.

Last December, Kuwait’s parliament passed a law that criminalised “imitating the appearance of the opposite sex.”

The amendment states that “any person committing an indecent act in a public place, or imitating the appearance of a member of the opposite sex, shall be subject to imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year or a fine.”

Subsequent roundups netted at least 16 suspects, New York-based Human Rights Watch reported, adding that three detainees were beaten.

The only known targets of the new Kuwaiti law have been transgender people.

Kuwait does not allow transgender people to change their legal identity to match the gender in which they live or to adapt their physical appearance through gender reassignment surgery.

In September 2007 Al Arabiya reported a new government campaign to “combat the growing phenomenon of gays and transsexuals” in Kuwait.

Mr. Mohammad Haiif, the spokesperson for the Parliamentary Study Group on Social Vice, told reporters yesterday that ” those suffering from queerness are in need of medical treatment for hormonal imbalance, and by doing so, we help them, and not harm them.”

The oil-rich country of three million people was invaded by Saddam Hussein in 1991, sparking the first Gulf War.

It is relatively liberal and democratic compared to its Muslim neighbours. It has an elected national council and women gained the right to vote in 2006.

Iran’s government not just allows but funds gender reassignment surgery, following a fatwa issued by the nation’s former leader Ayatollah Khomeini.