Last Updated: Monday, 22 September 2014, 21:11 GMT

Guyana: Stop Dress Code Arrests

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 5 March 2009
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Guyana: Stop Dress Code Arrests, 5 March 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/49b4d2258.html [accessed 23 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

(Georgetown) - Guyana should halt arrests and police abuse of transgender people and repeal a repressive law that criminalizes wearing clothes considered appropriate only for the opposite sex, six human rights organizations said today in a letter to President Bharrat Jagdeo.

The letter was signed by the Caribbean Forum for Liberation of Genders and Sexualities (CARIFLAGS), Global Rights, Guyana Rainbow Foundation (Guybow), Human Rights Watch, International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), and the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD). They called on the Guyanese authorities to drop the charges against seven people arrested under the law in February, 2009, and investigate allegations of abuse by the police.

"Police are using archaic laws to violate basic freedoms," said Scott Long director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. "This is a campaign meant to drive people off the streets simply because they dress or act in ways that transgress gender norms."

Between February 6 and 10, police in the Guyanese capital, Georgetown, detained at least eight people, some of them twice, charging seven of them under section 153 (1) (xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act Chapter 8:02. This criminalizes as a minor offense the "wearing of female attire by man; wearing of male attire by women."

Officers took the detainees to Brickdam police station. The detainees reported to SASOD Guyana, a local human rights organization working for the freedoms of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, that police refused to allow them to make a phone call or contact a lawyer, both basic rights under Guyanese law.

The detainees reported that police officers photographed them and then told them to take off all of their "female clothes" in front of several police officers. One defendant told rights organizations that after the detainees stripped, the police told them to bend down to "search" them, as a way to mock them for their sexual orientation. They were then ordered to put on "men's clothing."

Police kept five of the men in solitary confinement until the day of the trial, contending that it was for their safety.

The first arrests took place on February 6, when plainclothes policemen detained three men in downtown Georgetown, near Stabroek Market. On February 7, the police detained five more. In both occasions acting Chief Magistrate Melissa Robertson fined the detainees GY$7,500 (US$36) each. On February 10, the police detained four people; three of whom had been among those arrested on February 6 and 7.

In court, when handing down the sentence, Chief Magistrate Robertson told the detainees they were not women but men and exhorted them to "go to church and give their lives to Christ."

"The enforcement of laws repressing individuals' self-expression is against basic provisions of human rights," said Stefano Fabeni, program director of the LGBTI Initiative at Global Rights. "Police treatment during arrest and detention of the eight men shows serious breaches of Guyana's international human rights obligations."

The Summary Jurisdiction (Offenses) Act provides for adjudication of these cases without a jury. The act dates from colonial times. Other offenses under the same provision include: "exposing for sale cattle in improper part of town (iv); beating [a] mat in [a] public way in town (vii); cleansing cask, etc. in public way (xl); driving cattle without proper assistance (xv), etc."

Police use the law to target people born male who wear what police regard as female clothing. This violates the individual's privacy, freedom of expression, and personal dignity.

"It is outrageous in this day and age that human beings get arrested for cross-gender expression," said Vicky Sawyer, transgender representative for CARIFLAGS. "Transgender issues should be dealt with using international human rights standards, not police abuse."

As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Guyana has agreed to respect the absolute prohibition against torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment set out in the treaty (Article 7). Article 14 of the same treaty affirms the right to counsel. The treaty also bars interference with the right to privacy (Article 17) and protects freedom of expression (Article 19). Guyana has the obligation to respect and ensure these rights, and to do so in a nondiscriminatory manner, as set forth in Article 2.

Guyana has several laws that criminalize relationships between people of the same sex. Section 351 of the Criminal Law (Offenses) Act punishes committing acts of "gross indecency" with a male person with a two-year prison sentence. Section 352 criminalizes any "attempt to commit unnatural offenses." This includes a 10-year prison sentence for any "male [that] indecently assaults any other male person." Finally Section 353 states that "Everyone who commits buggery, either with a human being or with any other living creature, shall be guilty of felony and be liable to imprisonment for life."

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