January 10, 2012

IV. Lack of Protection and Redress

Two realities define the lives of abused transgender and transsexual women in Kuwait: first, fear that prevents them from reporting incidents of violence to the police, and second, the sense that making such complaints is futile. Interviewees said that direct threats and violence from the police ensure that complaints of victims of sexual assaults never surface.

Malak was arrested in July 2009, and picked up by police again two months later. Her hair had not had time to grow out from the last time the police shaved her head, and she was dressed in male clothes. When a patrol car stopped her in Salmiya, she said the police told her they were going to detain her “because of your face.”[108]

They drove me to the nearest Salmiya checkpoint to show me to their friends and make fun of me. Then they took me not to the Criminal Investigation Department like they’re supposed to, but to the Department of Traffic Control in Salmiya. I asked them why I was there, and they said “You’re imitating.” I asked them how, and they replied, “Your face.” What do they want me to do, disfigure my face for them? They made me take off my clothes and tried to have sex with me, but I was able to resist. Of course they insulted me and humiliated me, these things go without saying.
One of the officers was from the royal family, a Sabahi.[109] He told me that he wanted to give me a souvenir so that I would always remember him, and then put out his cigarette on my hand. I have the medical report to prove it —a second degree burn on my left palm. They wrote a fake report that I had run a red light and confiscated my license for three months.[110]

The next day, Malak called in to a TV program called “Scoop” and told her story on the air. She recounts that after hearing her story Maj. Gen. Thabet al-Mhanna of the Department of Traffic Control called the program and told her to come see him about the case. According to Malak, he was very sympathetic and took her testimony respectfully, including the name and rank of her abuser, but she contends that was neither prosecuted nor punished. A few weeks later, Malak’s friend, Nisreen, was arrested. Nisreen told Human Rights Watch that she encountered the same officer who had burned Malak. When he found out that she knew Malak, Nisreen said he told her that if he ever found Malak again, he would “destroy her.”[111]

Malak’s case demonstrates two realities about the lives of abused transgender and transsexual women in Kuwait: first, the fear that prevents them from reporting incidents of violence to the police, and second, the futility of such complaints. Direct threats and violence from the police have ensured that complaints of victims of sexual assaults never surface.

The social and legal vulnerability of transsexuals in Kuwait leaves little room for redress for such crimes. Although the Ministry of Interior has a special department to record public complaints of abuse filed against any ministry officer, the Committee Against Torture has noted that there is no “independent complaint mechanism for receiving and conducting prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations of torture, and for ensuring that those found guilty are appropriately punished.”[112]

Khouloud recounted her experience with police intimidation:

I stayed in detention for two weeks, even though by law I should only be kept for four days. I wasn’t allowed to inform my family. The reason they kept me that long was that I kept threatening to file a complaint about their abuse and torture. They only released me when they made sure I wasn’t going to file a complaint, when they beat me enough that I became docile. Towards the end it got so bad that I just wanted to be released, or even taken to prison, anything but this. I would laugh with them, joke with them even through the beating just so they would let me go. After that there was no way I could complain. I had suffered enough.[113]

Transgender women say they have learned the hard way that the police are never there for their protection, but rather constitute a pervasive threat to their safety and bodily integrity. Human Rights Watch heard several accounts in which individuals said they got into car accidents and were then arrested for “imitating the opposite sex” by police who came to the scene to investigate.[114] Such experiences have taught the transsexual community that it is at risk in any situation involving the police.

In 2009 Sara and her friend got into a minor car accident with five other cars on a Kuwait City highway. Terrified that when police came they would arrest them for “imitation,” they said they abandoned the car and ran away. After a tow truck took the car to the police station, Sara said she went with her brother to retrieve it, wearing a baggy sweater, loose jeans, and a baseball cap under which her long hair was tucked. Despite this, Sara says, the police officer threatened her with arrest if he ever saw her in a police station again.[115]

Rima got into a hit-and-run car accident in March 2009. She went to the nearest police station to report the incident, where police yelled at her and called her names:

I was “filth,” a “societal disease.” All I wanted to do was to file a report because a car had backed into me. Even that I couldn’t do. I dropped the charges and left, I couldn’t deal with the abuse any longer…. When I left the police kept calling to try to arrange a date with me. In the end I had to change my number, but I know that if they wanted to harm me, they could very easily [do so] and there’s nothing I can do about it.[116]

Amina, 35, a transgender woman, told Human Rights Watch  that in January 2010 two men began following her in her car, trying to get her to talk to them. They hit her car and was injured quite badly. When the police came, she said they refused to take her to the hospital even though she was bleeding, and took her to the police station where they shaved her head and made her sign a declaration promising never to “imitate” again.[117]

In July 2010 lawyer Riad al-Saneh wrote an article in daily Al-Anba recounting the story of a transgender woman who went into the Salmiya police station to report a man who had broken her mobile phone and refused to compensate her. Al-Saneh wrote that before going into the station, she wore a dishdasha over her skirt and washed the makeup off her face, but had forgotten to take off her earrings. Before she even had a chance to report the crime, the police immediately arrested her for “imitating the opposite sex.”[118]

In the rare cases where transsexuals filed complaints against police for abuse, they said that nothing came of the investigations and no one was punished. In May 2010 Dana, 23, said she filed a complaint with the Hawalli public prosecutor against a police officer who allegedly raped her in the CID in April. To this day, she says the officer in question has not been investigated.[119]

Transgender women told Human Rights Watch that it is also nearly impossible to achieve redress for violence by civilians against them. In 2010, while Maha was stopped at a red light, a man approached her car and smashed her window in an apparent hate crime. Maha said she went to the police station with the car license number to report him, but police taunted her, saying they ought to file a case against her instead, for “imitating.”[120]

Human Rights Watch was able to confirm two instances where police officers were investigated for accusations of assault, but was unable to learn whether the officers involved were punished. In one case, which later received widespread media attention, Al-Rai newspaper reported on January 29, 2011, that three transgender women arrested the previous day filed a complaint against police officers at the Traffic Control Department in the Surra disctrict of Kuwait City.[121] According to the article, police abused and humiliated the detainees and forced them to undress and dance for them. One officer reportedly fired his gun several times to scare them. In the second case, Al-Rai reported on June 10, 2011, that a transgender woman serving a prison sentence filed a complaint against a prison guard for attempted rape, but there was no further reporting on the outcome of this case.[122] However, neither case is typical of those investigated by Human Rights Watch, where most interviewees said that they did not report police violations in the first place.

When Human Rights Watch asked transgender women why they did not lodge formal complaints for mistreatment, abuse, or torture, all but three of the 40 expressed very little confidence in the protective mechanisms of the state and said they preferred to just get on with their lives, hoping that the incident would not be repeated

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The passage of the discriminatory amendment to article 198 criminalizing “imitating the opposite sex” has paved the way for police to arbitrarily detain, torture, and sexually harass and abuse transgender women in Kuwait with impunity. Despite a formal state recognition of Gender Identity Disorder, arrests of transgender women continue unabated. The police often take advantage of the law to blackmail transgender women for sex, and redress for police abuse is difficult, if not impossible, for fear of reprisal and re-arrest. The law does not criminalize any specific act or behavior, but rather an appearance whose interpretation is left entirely up to the whims of the police, giving them free reign to decide who is breaking the law and how it is broken. The state of Kuwait should respect its obligations under international law and investigate all allegations of torture and instate mechanisms to ensure effective monitoring of police behavior. It should also instate an immediate moratorium on arrests of transgenders under this law, and repeal the amendment to article 198.

[108]Human Rights Watch interview with Malak, Kuwait City, Kuwait, February 16, 2011.

[109]The name of the officer has been withheld upon request of the interviewee.

[110]Human Rights Watch interview with Malak, Kuwait City, Kuwait, February 16, 2011.

[111] Human Rights Watch interview with Nisreen, Kuwait City, Kuwait, February 16, 2011.

[112]United Nations Committee Against Torture, “Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties under Article 19 of the Convention, Concluding observations of the Committee against Torture - Kuwait,” CAT/C/KWT/CO/, June 28, 2011, http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cat/docs/co/CAT.C.KWT.CO.2.pdf, (accessed August 2, 2011), para 20.

[113] Human Rights Watch interview with Khouloud, Kuwait City, Kuwait, February 9, 2011.

[114] Kuwait has a very high number of traffic accidents. Al Watan newspaper reported that over 56,000 car accidents were recorded in 2008 alone—over 1,000 accidents a week in a population of about 2.8 million. See “ 56,660 car accidents in 2008 alone,” Al Watan Daily,  http://www2.alwatan.com.kw/Default.aspx?MgDid=740632&pageId=473 (accessed November 16, 2011).

[115] Human Rights Watch interview with Sara, Kuwait City, Kuwait, February 6, 2011.

[116] Human Rights Watch interview with Rima, Kuwait City, Kuwait, February 10, 2011.

[117] Human Rights Watch interview with Amina, Kuwait City, Kuwait, February 20, 2011.

[118] Riad Al-Saneh, “Transsexual goes to police station to report a crime and arrested for imitating the opposite sex,” Al-Anba, July 2, 2010.

[119] Human Rights Watch interview with Dana, Kuwait City, Kuwait, February 7, 2011.

[120] Human Rights Watch interview with Maha, Kuwait City, Kuwait, February 16, 2011.

[121] Hussein Al-Harby, “Three ‘soft men’ accuse officers of forcing them to dance and one of them of shooting,” Al-Rai, January 29, 2011, http://www.alraimedia.com/Alrai/Article.aspx?id=253119&date=29012011 (accessed June 14, 2011).

[122] Abdelaziz Al-Yahyouh, “Officer in Central Prison Harasses ‘third sex’,” Al-Rai, June 10, 2011, http://www.alraimedia.com/Alrai/Article.aspx?id=280760&date=10062011(accessed July 2, 2011).