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Human Rights Watch: End violence against transgender people in Honduras

News release from Human Rights Watch:

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(San Pedro Sula) - Honduras should act to end an epidemic of violence against transgender people by investigating, prosecuting, and convicting those responsible, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The organization also called on Honduran authorities to repeal legal provisions on "public morality" and "public scandal" that give police excessive power and enable abuse.

The 45-page report, "‘Not Worth a Penny': Human Rights Abuses against Transgender People in Honduras," details abuses based on gender identity and expression, including rape, beatings, extortion, and arbitrary detentions by law enforcement officials. It also documents police inaction and recurrent failure to investigate violence against transgender people. At least 17 travestis (as many transgender people are called) have been killed in public places in Honduras since 2004. None of these killings have led to a prosecution or conviction.

"The police have an obligation to protect people and to investigate violence, no matter who the victims are," said Juliana Cano Nieto, researcher in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. "The Honduran State is failing miserably on this basic issue of human rights."

Violence against transgender people is a constant in Honduras, and the attacks rarely lead to an investigation or prosecution. On January 9, 2009, unknown assailants shot and killed Cynthia Nicole, a leading transgender rights activist. No one has been apprehended or charged with her murder. Most recently, on May 7, two unknown men beat Bárbara Paola, an outreach worker for a Tegucigalpa-based LGBT organization, Arcoiris. Local LGBT rights groups told Human Rights Watch that the case is not under investigation, and that no one has been prosecuted or imprisoned.

Based on interviews with victims of and witnesses to violence, the report also cites cases of violence on the part of police in Honduran cities in recent years. Several transgender people told Human Rights Watch that police officers rape them and extort money from them regularly. A 19-year-old transgender person told Human Rights Watch that police punched her in the face, beat her with a baton, and broke a broomstick against her back before throwing her into jail.

The report documents other cases in which police have stood by and watched when transgender people are attacked, and shows how police fail to pursue investigations in other instances.

Often police justify their actions with reference to vague language in the Law on Police and Social Affairs - such as a need to protect "public morality" and guard against "public scandal." For example, an outreach worker told Human Rights Watch that police officers accused her of stealing, hit her head against a glass door of a building, and accused her of "public scandal."

Some actions to protect public morality are permitted under international human rights law, mainly if they are clearly set out in domestic law, are shown to be necessary, and are applied proportionately. This is clearly not the case in the provisions of the Law on Police and Social Affairs in Honduras, however. Vague provisions in the law enable police violence and abuses against other marginalized communities as well as transgender people.

Comparable laws are found in Guatemala, some states in Mexico, and some provinces in Argentina. Yet in other Latin American countries, like Colombia, judges have quashed similar laws on the grounds that such concepts are too broad and invite discriminatory treatment.

Human Rights Watch acknowledged that Honduras has taken positive steps by making a public commitment to end violence on the grounds of people's sexual orientation or gender identity, in particular by supporting the Organization of American States (OAS) "Resolution on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity" in June 2008.

However, Human Rights Watch called on Honduras to translate these international statements into local action. Honduras should repeal the sweeping provisions in the Law on Police and Social Affairs and pass specific anti-discrimination legislation that bars discrimination on all grounds, including sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.

The report release coincides with the annual meeting of heads of state of the Organization of American States (OAS), of which Honduras is the host. The theme for this year's meeting is "Toward a Culture of Non-Violence."

"As host to the 39th General Assembly, Honduras should send the message that non-violence is a human right for all," said Cano Nieto. "The Honduran government should start by repealing domestic legislation that enables violence."

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