Human Rights Watch has called on Kuwait to release more than a dozen transgender people jailed under the country’s new dress-code law.

The law, approved by the National Assembly on December 10, 2007, criminalizes people who “imitate the appearance of the opposite sex.”

“The wave of arrests in the past month shows exactly why Kuwait should repeal this repressive law,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East division at Human Rights Watch. “Kuwaiti authorities should immediately drop all charges against those arrested, and investigate charges of ill-treatment in detention.”

Security officials have arrested at least 14 people in Kuwait City since the law came into effect. The law states that “any person committing an indecent act in a public place, or imitating the appearance of a member of the opposite sex, shall be subject to imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year or a fine not exceeding one thousand dinars [US$3,500].”

Dress codes based solely on gender stereotypes restrict both freedom of expression and personal autonomy, Human Rights Watch said.

The only known targets of the new Kuwaiti law have been transgender people – individuals born into one gender who deeply identify themselves with another. Kuwait allows transgender people neither to change their legal identity to match the gender in which they live, nor to adapt their physical appearance through gender reassignment surgery.

The new law, coming after months of controversy, aims at further restricting their rights and eliminating their public presence. In September 2007, the newspaper Al Arabiya reported a new government campaign “to combat the growing phenomenon of gays and transsexuals” in Kuwait.

All the people detained are being held in Tahla Prison. Friends of the accused have told Human Rights Watch that police and prison guards subjected the detainees to physical and psychological abuse.

Al-Rai newspaper quoted police as saying that the “confused [persins were] deposited in the special ward,” and that the prison administration ordered guards to shave the prisoners’ heads as a form of punishment.

The paper quoted a prison administrator as saying “this step [shaving heads] follows the passage of the law concerning men who imitate the appearance of women.”

Friends report that at least three of the prisoners were beaten and one was left unconscious. Authorities deported one Saudi Arabian national among those arrested, to face trial in that country. None of the detainees has access to legal representation.

“The intent of this measure is clear: to eradicate the freedoms and visibility of people who already face discrimination daily,” said Stork. “When states impose dress codes, whether on women or on men, they deny their basic rights to both privacy and free expression.”

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