Guyana should halt arrests and police abuse of transgender people and repeal a repressive law that criminalises wearing clothes considered appropriate only for the opposite sex, six human rights organisations said 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 last month, 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 a section of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act. This criminalises 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 told SASOD Guyana, a LLGBT rights organisation, 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 organisations 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 Summary Jurisdiction (Offenses) Act provides for adjudication of these cases without a jury. The act dates from colonial times. Police reportedly use the law to target people born male who wear what police regard as female clothing.

“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.”

Guyana also has several laws that criminalise relationships between people of the same sex with penalties including a 10-year prison sentence and even imprisonment for life.

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