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LGBT people from Central America, many fleeing persecution in their countries of origin, traveled through Mexico in November 2018 on their way to seek asylum in the United States. © 2018 Spencer Platt/Getty Images
LGBT people from Central America, many fleeing persecution in their countries of origin, traveled through Mexico in November 2018 on their way to seek asylum in the United States. © 2018 Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New lawsuit in Honduras could set precedent for trans protections in Latin America

A ruling is expected soon in the first Transfemicide case before the Inter-American Court.

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Eleven years ago, 26-year-old Vicky Hernández, a trans woman and activist, was shot and killed during Honduras’ coup d-etat. Her death marked the first in a series of targeted violence and lethal attacks against trans people in Honduras and against the LBGTQ community as a whole. 

At least seven other trans women were killed the same week as Hernandez, and in the last decade, more than 370 LGBTQ-identifying people have been killed in Honduras. 

Hernandez’s case is a glimpse into a system of discrimination that LBGTQ people face in Latin America, where they are constantcly denied basic human rights and are excluded from social protections and security. 

Because in Hernández’ case, it was likely an officer or a member of the state that killed her. 

Prosecutors are arguing that she was the victim of an “extrajudicial killing,” because of many factors, ranging from her execution-style killing, the fact that her body was left in the street until the next morning, and other factors that point to the involvement of state agents. 

Investigators never ran forensic tests, and it is not clear if authorities ever performed an autopsy on her body. Two trans women who later said they saw a police car approach Hernández just before she went missing were also killed within a year of her death. 

Now, her case is about to make legal history as a regional human rights court, the Inter-American Court, continues to deliberate on whether the Honduran government should be held accountable for Hernández’s death, and whether her family deserves reparations. 

One of the important aspects of this case is that it’s the first time the Inter-American Court, which has jurisdiction over 20 Latin American countries in the region, is considering a case that has to do with trans femicides. What’s more particular is that it’s a case that occurred during Honduras’ coup d'etat in 2009. 

It’s only the second such case that revisits potential violations by the government during the time period. 

The hearing marked the first time trans women testified before the Court about the violence the LGBTQ+ community faces in Honduras and the region. 

If successful, this would be the first time the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the highest court in the region, holds a state — in this case, Honduras —accountable for the death of a trans person, setting a legal precedent for Latin America.  

It could also order the Honduran government to enact measures designed to prevent violence against transgender people.

A verdict is expected within the next week, but could take longer. 

The Case

Because it’s an issue that is not particular to Honduras, but actually across a region that sees some of the highest labels of transphobic violence in the world, the decision against Honduras has the potential to set new rules and regulations for neighboring countries to eventually adopt and follow. 

“This decision against Honduras has the potential of setting new standards of protection for trans women and for LBGTQ people more broadly in the region,” said Angelita Baeyens, lead attorney at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, and one of the co-litigators with Honduran organization, Cattrachas. She is also the VP of international litigation and advocacy programs for civil rights and represents the family of Vicky Hernández before the Inter-American court. 

“When the decision comes out, one of the things we’re expecting to do is not only to find Honduras internationally responsible for violating a series of rights, including the right to life … we’re pushing forward that there is enough evidence to point out at the direct involvement of state agents in her murder,” Baeyens said. 

She hopes the court finds Honduras has violated a number of rights violations, from the right for access to justice, since Hernández’ murder wasn’t investigated, the right of freedom of expression, and the right to not be discriminated against. 

The Reparations

If the Court finds Honduras responsible, which Baeyens said it likely will on most counts, it will issue a series of reparation orders.

A typical reparation measure is for the state to publicly recognize its responsibility and ask forgiveness from the victims and their families. Baeyens said lawyers also expect the decision to be made known throughout the state, so that Honduras’ society is aware of the case, and the court’s decision. 

“We also expect compensation to be awarded to the family,” Baeyens said. 

But one of the main points of reparation by Honduras is one she said states often fail to comply with, which is to reactivate investigation into Hernández’ case and work towards identifying and prosecuting those directly responsibly for her murder. 

There is also a series of measures that lawyers are hoping goes beyond Hernández’s specific case, and that would work towards a better understanding of trans lives in the region. 

They're hoping that the court orders a comprehensive and deep training, and educational program for law enforcement. They are also asking for Honduruas to adopt a new series of laws that would address the discrimination plaguing LGBTQ lives. 

“That context of discrimination feeds violence and vice -versa.” Baeyens said.

If her team wins, Baeyens said she hopes other countries will follow suit. 

There are very few countries in the region that have laws allowing people to change their name and sex in their identity documents. Barriers like this limit opportunities for work other than sex work because of the stigmas surrounding their own identities. 

“Vicky embodies many different layers of discrimination,” Baeyens said. “She was poor, she was trans, a trans woman, she was HIV positive, she was a sex worker. She had all those layers, and she was also an activist.”

With this initial move, the misconceptions regarding trans and other LGBTQ-identifying people can begin the slow mend. 

Eleven years of advocacy

The human rights organization Cattrachas has been advocating for the past 20 years working to document instances of violence against LGBTQ people.

They have an observatory that is the most comprehensive and detailed in Honduras on violence against LGBTQ populations. The state itself often has to rely on their data because it doesn’t have it’s own real system of tracking or compiling data to really understand the magnitude of the problem. 

Baeyens’ organization joined the litigation of the case in 2015, but it had already been presented before the Inter American Court in 2011 by Cattrachas.

Cattrachas has been advocating since the beginning, but there have also been other groups, including the group Hernández advocated with — the Colectivo Color Rosa in San Pedro Sula. 

The main witness in the case and in the hearing before the Inter American Court, was the former executive director of the organization, who was familiar with the level of harassment and violence Hernández was subject to. 

While these groups within Honduras have played an important part in fighting for visibility and advocacy, the general public public perception regarding trans lives in the region falls behind. 

“It's a very difficult process that has happened, not only in Honduras but in the region and countries that are more conservagtive streams disriminiating within government the legislative powers. That is very much the case in Honduras, which affects equality and rights of LGBTQ people,” Baeyens said.
 

Earlier this year Honduras’ congress passed measures that prevent decriminalization of abortion. Included in these measures is an amendment that blocks any constitutional reform that would grant same-sex couples the right to marriage.

Again, that was just this year. 

Younger generations as a whole are generally more open and accepting of sexual diversity. But the issue lies with those in power. As the system stands, the power dynamics are not sensitive or open to LGBTQ lives. 

In any case a verdict on Hernández’ case is expected soon. 

“Honduras is going to be held responsible for at least most of the rights violations that we’re alleging. That I am almost sure of. It’s hard to see another outcome,” Baeyens said. 

The only point of uncertainty is how far the court is willing to go when it comes to financial reparations to the family, but litigators remain optimistic that the Inter-American Court will embrace the opportunity in this first such case in Latin American history. 
 

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