(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia should investigate the death of a Pakistani transgender woman at a Riyadh police station following a raid on an event space in late February 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. Saudi authorities should also immediately release five Pakistanis who remain in detention if they are held only on suspicion of committing morality related “offenses.”
On February 26, local media outlets reported that Saudi police in Riyadh had raided a rented hall that day, and arrested 35 Pakistanis gathered there. A Saudi news website released photos of 10 of the Pakistanis at the hall, some dressed in women’s clothes, as well as a box of rings. Pakistani transgender activists told Human Rights Watch that some of the those gathered at the hall, including the detainee who died in detention, are transgender women, known as Khawaja Saras in Pakistan.
“Saudi Arabia’s aggressive policing of the private consensual activities of Saudis and foreigners diverts resources from actual problems such as preventing and solving crimes,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia should immediately end this nightmare for Pakistani families by credibly investigating why this woman died in police custody and releasing the other Pakistanis still in jail.”
Human Rights Watch confirmed the death by reviewing official documents after earlier media reports, including assertions by a family member that she was tortured in custody. March 28 media reports in Pakistan said that a representative of the Pakistani Foreign Affairs Ministry told a meeting of the Pakistani Senate’s Human Rights Committee that Saudi authorities had arrested the 35 Pakistanis after monitoring them for two months. He confirmed that 29 of them were eventually released, while five remain in detention.
The son of the transgender woman who died in detention, who was known by the name Meeno, told the committee that his family received her body on March 11. “When we opened the coffin, my father’s teeth and jaw were broken,” he was quoted as saying. “Moreover, there were marks of wounds on the body.”
Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry denied the torture claims in a statement to Reuters on March 6, admitting only that “[o]ne 61-year-old person suffered a heart attack and died in the hospital after being treated.”
Human Rights Watch reviewed the Saudi Health Ministry’s medical report and the Interior Ministry’s death certificate. The medical report states that the body did not show “any signs of suspicious wounds.” It also quotes a police memo from Aziziyya station, in southern Riyadh, stating that police detained the person on February 26, in a “morality case,” and that after the detainee complained of chest pains police called the Saudi Red Crescent Authority, which provides emergency services, to take the person to the hospital.
The Saudi death certificate lists the cause of death as “stopping of the heart and breathing,” and the date of death as February 27. But a briefing from Pakistani Senate’s Human Rights Committee says the transgender woman died on March 1. The Saudi-issued embalming certificate is dated March 9.
Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm where the five additional Pakistanis are held or whether authorities have charged them. Pakistani law includes provisions to protect the rights of transgender people due under a 2011 Supreme Court judgment. In that decision, similar to those from other courts in South Asia, Pakistan’s Supreme Court said that all provincial governments should recognize the rights of transgender people.
Saudi Arabia has no written laws concerning sexual orientation or gender identity, but judges use principles of uncodified Islamic law to sanction people suspected of committing sexual relations outside marriage, including adultery, extramarital and homosexual sex, or other “immoral” acts. If such activity occurs online, judges and prosecutors utilize vague provisions of the country’s anti-cybercrime law that criminalize online activity impinging on “public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy.”
A Human Rights Watch review of LGBT-related cases from 2013 listed in a Saudi Justice Ministry of Justice report found three cases in which authorities accused men of wearing makeup or dressing in women’s clothes. The sentences ranged from 20 days in prison to a year-and-a-half, and between 20 and 300 lashes.
In February 2016, the Saudi Gazette reported that the Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecution is considering requesting the death penalty for anyone “using social media to solicit homosexual acts.”
“Saudi authorities should set the tone for society by respecting peoples’ privacy rather than targeting LGBT people for arrest,” Whitson said.