(Tegucigalpa) - The conviction of an off-duty police officer for a stabbing attack on a transgender woman is a major victory for justice and equal rights in Honduras, Human Rights Watch and Red Lésbica Cattrachas, a Honduran lesbian rights organization, said today. The two organizations attended the trial as observers.
On September 9, 2010, a three-judge bench sentenced the police officer, Amado Rodriguez Borjas, to 10 to 13 years in prison for his role in the attack. Nohelia, the transgender woman, was abducted and stabbed 17 times on December 18, 2008. It is the first conviction of a police officer in Honduras since 2003 for a crime against a transgender person, even though police abuse is common.
"This was a crime fueled by hate, as the 17 stab wounds attest," said Juliana Cano Nieto, researcher in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. "It is a testament to the integrity and courage of all involved with the case that they advanced the cause of justice notwithstanding the threats and intimidation."
The case was fraught with acts of intimidation, with police, a witness, and prosecutors as well as Nohelia threatened by anonymous attackers and callers. On March 21, unknown men kidnapped Nohelia and threatened to kill her if she continued with the case. She was shot in the arm in the ensuing struggle with the kidnappers but managed to escape.
A witness for the prosecution and police in charge of the investigation received anonymous threats. As a result, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights extended protection measures to Nohelia, the police officers, and prosecutors.
Attacks on transgender people - often targeted because their looks and demeanor challenge prevailing sex-role stereotypes - are commonplace in Honduras.Nearly every transgender person who Human Rights Watch interviewed during research in Honduras in 2008 and 2009 spoke of harassment, beatings, and-ill treatment at the hands of police. The most recent killing took place on August 30. Two men in a motorcycle shot and killed Imperia Gamaniel Parson, a trangender sex worker in San Pedro Sula and member of the Colectivo Unidad Rosa.
Bias-motivated attacks on transgender people by private individuals are endemic. At least 19 transgender persons have been killed in public places in Honduras since 2004; many more have been injured in beatings, stabbings, or shootings.
These attacks rarely lead to an investigation or prosecution in Honduras.
"The larger question is whether this trial will be followed by the prosecution of other individuals who commit hate crimes against the transgender, lesbian, gay, and bisexual people," Cano Nieto said.
The fact that the court's judgment did not address discrimination even though the prosecution presented evidence of homophobia and transphobia as motives for the attack was a weakness in the outcome of the Borjas case, Human Rights Watch said. Nor did the court accept prosecutors' arguments that the sentence should be increased because of homophobic bias.
In addition, most court personnel treated Nohelia and a transgender witness with seeming disdain; only the prosecutor and one of the three judges referred to them by their chosen pronoun.
"The court should be applauded for finding that a serious crime had been committed, but we look to the day when the courts understand the full measure of hatred behind the crime," said Indyra Mendoza, director of Red Lésbica Cattrachas. "We still have a long way to go to ensure that the justice system understands and properly addresses sexual orientation and gender identity."
On the night of December 17, 2008, Nohelia, a sex worker in Tegulcigalpa, refused to have sex with Borjas. The next evening, he returned by car with two other men. Based on evidence presented at the trial, Borjas stabbed her in the neck when she approached the car, not knowing who was inside. The men then dragged her into the car and drove to the outskirts of the capital, where Borjas stabbed her on her arms, back, and front of her body.
She managed to escape through the car window, and a passerby later picked her up and took her to a hospital. Nohelia has a permanent scar on her throat and several others on her arms.