Indonesia: Police must protect – not attack – transgender women in Aceh

Indonesian authorities are failing to protect the transgender women who were appallingly ill-treated and humiliated by police in North Aceh on January 27, some of whom have since had to go into hiding due to fears for their safety, Amnesty International said today.

Amnesty International interviewed some of the victims in a location near Aceh, to where they had fled after they lost their jobs while also suffering verbal and physical abuse from family members and the general public.

The transgender women testified that on 27 January during police raids on the beauty salons where they worked, police publicly humiliated, kicked and slapped them and cut their hair in an effort to get “rid of all transgender people from Aceh”.

“Not only have these transgender women been arrested and ill-treated by police for no other reason than who they are, some of them now continue to suffer as they have lost their livelihoods and have had to flee their homes. This is a complete failure by the Indonesian authorities to protect their human rights,” said Amnesty International Indonesia Executive Director Usman Hamid.

“Local authorities and ordinary people, in the name of Shari’a law, have colluded to attack and humiliate these transgender women. We believe the actions of the police amount to torture under international law. Those responsible must be investigated and held to account, including those in the North Aceh police who carried out the raids in the name of a ‘war against transgenders’.

“President Joko Widodo must instruct the National Police to order North Aceh police to stop attacking and start protecting transgender people, should they receive threats and intimidation from local people. They must also act urgently, together with other authorities, to ensure that the 12 victims are immediately given the protection they need and can return safely to their homes and work.”

Living in fear

The victims have been left deeply traumatised by the raid and spoke to Amnesty International on condition of anonymity. Some of them are now on the run to seek a safer place elsewhere in Indonesia as they live in fear that the police could come to arrest them any time.

Some of the transgender women have been intimidated by neighbours or even family members since the raid, and one victim was kicked and had a stone thrown at her several days after the raids. In addition, they are also unable to support their family members since they have lost their jobs as a result of the raid.

Some of those who remain in Aceh have found no choice but to agree to “act like men” as demanded by the police, however, they have had difficulties finding a job because people are afraid to hire them after the raid.

Hours of humiliation

The victims told Amnesty International in detail about the events of 27 January, when they were subjected to “punishments” from police that amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment – and possibly torture – under international law. Police raided five beauty salons in North Aceh and detained transgender women as part of what the North Aceh police have called a “program to clean Aceh from transgender women”. This “war” is apparently backed by some local people and clerics.

During the raids, the North Aceh police chief delivered a speech condemning transgender women. Onlookers applauded his speech and shouted “oust them [from Aceh]. Just burn them. Just kill [them].” Police even handcuffed one of the 12 people.

After the raids, the North Aceh police chief brought the 12 victims to his office at 11pm on 27 January. The police then ordered them to walk in a humiliating fashion to a nearby park. Police shouted at them while giving instructions.

In front of many people who had gathered in the park to watch the humiliation, the police forced the 12 people through a mock military training – apparently to make them “manlier” – by ordering them to roll on the ground in the park. When one of the transgender women refused to roll on the ground, the North Aceh police chief fired a warning shot to scare her and others. A police officer later threw water in the face of one of the 12 victims for protesting their inhuman treatment.

During the raids, the North Aceh police chief delivered a speech condemning transgender women. Onlookers applauded his speech and shouted “oust them [from Aceh]. Just burn them. Just kill [them].” Police even handcuffed one of the 12 people.

The police forced them to take off their clothes except for their trousers. One of them rejected the order saying, “Just shoot me. This is about dignity.” The police chief replied: “You as a transgender do not have the right to have dignity.” A police officer later forcibly cut the hair of six of the victims to make them “look masculine”. The victims were later told to pee in a bottle for a urine drug test in front of many onlookers in the park, but they refused to do so.

The police instructed one of the 12 victims to clean the bodies and hair of the others using a hose. The North Aceh police chief later kicked her for what the police said was a failure to properly wash the others. Further, the police chief ordered the 12 victims to shout “like a man”. He slapped one of the victims on the face with a sandal because the victim could not shout “like men”. Another police officer later slapped the same victim with a sandal on her ears and mouth causing her lips to crack.

After humiliating them for two hours, the police told them to sit on the ground and then walk to police detention cells at 1am. They were forced to sleep on the cold floor in their wet trousers without mattresses.

The police released 11 of the victims on the afternoon of 28 January, but only after they were forced to attend a religious sermon by a Muslim cleric who told them to return to “your nature” and that “it is okay to kill transgender or other LGBTI people because they are more evil than kafir [infidel]”. The cleric also said that “the Tsunami hit Aceh [in 2004] because [of the sins] of transgender people” and if they did not change, nobody would take care and pray for them when they died.

One of the transgender women remained in police custody until 29 January after the police found a sexually explicit video on her mobile phone. Before the releases, the police instructed all 12 victims to sign a document but did not allow them to read what it said. It was an agreement to not act “like women” in the future and not to complain about any police misconduct.

State response

The raid took place against a backdrop of growing anti-LGBT sentiments in Aceh. Instead of offering support to the victims, Aceh Governor Irwandi Yusuf has publicly stated that he had supported the police’s raid on transgender women. At an anti-LGBT rally on 2 February, the Governor also said: “We don’t hate lesbian, gay, bisexual people [personally], but we hate their behaviour.”

Despite the fact that the North Aceh police chief is currently under internal investigation by the Aceh provincial police over the alleged ill-treatment of the transgender women, a spokesman from the same provincial police expressed support for the raid when joining the anti-LGBT rally.

“This horrific treatment and humiliation of transgender people is in clear violation of the absolute prohibition of torture and ill-treatment, made even worse by the fact that it was carried out by local police and backed by clerics. It is appalling that a group of heavily armed police officers raided and arrested transgender women on the basis of nothing but hatred,” Usman Hamid said.

“The harrowing tales of these women must be a wake-up call to Indonesian authorities and people everywhere. The human rights of all Indonesians – whatever their sexual orientation, gender identity and experience – must be upheld and protected equally.

“President Joko Widodo must publicly rebuke the Governor’s endorsement and make it crystal clear that such attitudes are unacceptable.”