(Kuwait City) – Kuwaiti police have tortured and sexually abused transgender women using a discriminatory law, passed in 2007, which arbitrarily criminalizes “imitating the opposite sex,” Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The government of Kuwait should repeal the law, article 198 as amended in 2007, and hold police officers accountable for misconduct.
The 63-page report, “‘They Hunt us Down for Fun’: Discrimination and Police Violence Against Transgender Women in Kuwait,” documents the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and persecution that transgender women – individuals who are born male, but identify as female – have faced at the hands of police. The report also documents the discrimination that transgender women have faced on a daily basis – including by members of the public – as a result of the law, an amendment to penal code article 198. Based on interviews with 40 transgender women, as well as with ministry of interior officials, lawyers, doctors, and members of Kuwaiti civil society, the report found that the arbitrary, ill-defined provisions of the law has allowed for numerous abuses to take place.
Police have free rein to determine whether a person’s appearance constitutes “imitating the opposite sex” without any specific criteria being laid down for the offense. Transgender women reported being arrested even when they were wearing male clothes and then later being forced by police to dress in women’s clothing, and the claim made that they arrested them in that attire. In some cases documented by Human Rights Watch, transgender women said police arrested them because they had a “soft voice” or “smooth skin.”
“No one – regardless of his or her gender identity – deserves to be arrested on the basis of a vague, arbitrary law and then abused and tortured by police,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Kuwaiti government has a duty to protect all of its residents, including groups who face popular disapproval, from brutal police behavior and the application of an unfair law.”
Transgender women reported suffering multiple forms of abuse at the hands of the police while in detention, including degrading and humiliating treatment, such as being forced to strip and being paraded around the police station, being forced to dance for officers, sexual humiliation, verbal taunts and intimidation, solitary confinement, and emotional and physical abuse that could amount to torture. Redress for these violations is difficult, as few said they reported incidents of police misconduct because of threats of retribution and re-arrest.
In one case, a transgender woman told Human Rights Watch that after police arrested her and two of her friends, they took a trash can full of dirt and cigarette butts and dumped it over her friend’s head. Another friend was forced to do push-ups with a radiator on her back. In another, a transgender woman who was arrested with another person reported that police punched and kicked her brutally and beat her friend with a heavy stapler.
“The Kuwaiti authorities should ensure proper monitoring of police behavior”, said Whitson. “They should also investigate unchecked police abuse, hold those found guilty accountable for their actions, and make sure that vulnerable populations, such as transgenders, have access to mechanisms of redress without fear of retribution.”
In several cases, Human Rights Watch found that police officers took advantage of the law to blackmail transgender women into sex. Transgender women claimed that police used the threat of arrest to force them into sex, and that sexual abuse at the hands of the police has been rampant. Transgender women said that before the law, while sexual advances by the police were commonplace, they could decline such advances, whereas now police had leeway to imprison them if they refused.
Despite an official recognition of gender identity disorder (GID) by the Kuwaiti Ministry of Health as a legitimate medical condition, the law criminalizing “imitating the opposite sex” makes no exception for people who have been diagnosed with GID. The law leaves them at the mercy of officers in an unmonitored police force who transgender women said have refused to recognize, and sometimes have even torn up, medical reports and GID diagnoses that transgender women present to them upon arrest.
Under international law, Kuwait has an obligation to ensure the protection of its residents from arbitrary arrest or detention. Criminalizing an individual’s gender expression and identity violates the right to non-discrimination, equality before the law, free expression, personal autonomy, physical integrity, and privacy. Kuwait is also a signatory to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, under which sexual violence committed by police officers acting in an official capacity constitutes torture.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Kuwaiti government to repeal the amendment to article 198, criminalizing “imitating the opposite sex.” Pending repeal of the law, the Ministry of Interior should issue a moratorium on arrests of individuals according to the amended article 198 of the Kuwaiti penal code. The government also should work to protect transgender individuals, a particularly vulnerable group, from police abuse and violence, and investigate allegations of police brutality and abuse.