Discriminatory torture of an LGBTI person: landmark precedent set by the Inter-American Court (Azul Rojas Marín and Another v. Peru)

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In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) has issued a landmark judgment in the case of Azul Rojas Marín and Another v. Peru, enhancing the rights of LGBTI persons, and setting new standards with the potential to reduce the levels of violence suffered by this group both within and beyond the Americas. Through this case the IACtHR has developed the concept of “violence motivated by prejudice”; it concluded that discrimination based on sexual orientation can lead to arbitrary detentions of LGBTI people; it has developed its understanding of discriminatory torture; and it has set specific due diligence standards to ensure the effective investigation of these cases. The Court has ordered Peru to provide reparations to Azul including the implementation of important guarantees of non-repetition.

The case of Azul is not an isolated decision to protect LGBTI rights in the Inter-American System. Both the Inter-American Commission (IACHR) and IACtHR have been at the forefront of the protection of LGBTI rights, as illustrated by the Court’s controversial but significant Advisory Opinion 24/17 on Gender identity, and equality and non-discrimination with regard to same-sex couples, and cases such as Atala Riffo and daughters v. Chile and Duque v. Colombia. However, the Azul case goes a step further and complements other key European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) cases such as M.C and A.C v. Romania and Identoba and others v. Georgia where the ECtHR found violations of the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment and discrimination in relation to applicants who participated in peaceful LGBTI demonstrations, considering the States’ failure to protect demonstrators from homophobic violence and the lack of effective investigations.

What happened to Azul?

Azul Rojas Marín is a transgender woman, who at the time of the events self-identified as a gay man. She was detained late at night on 25 February 2008 by members of the Peruvian police when she was walking home. Some of the officers knew who Azul was. They insulted her and made derogatory remarks about her sexual orientation. She was forcibly taken to a police station and kept there for almost six hours, although her detention was not officially registered. During her detention, Azul was stripped naked, beaten repeatedly, and anally raped with a police baton. The insults and derogatory remarks about her sexual orientation continued throughout. She was released early the next day.

Azul reported the crime to the authorities, but they did not believe her and did not investigate properly. Different members of the justice system revictimized Azul. During the reconstruction of the crime scene, Azul was forced to face her perpetrators while they made fun of her. The prosecutor was present during her medical examination, without Azul’s consent, and kept making comments to influence the findings of the doctor. Azul´s complaint was eventually dismissed. To date, no one has been held to account or punished for what happened.

The litigation of the case

In this context REDRESS, the Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos (CNDH) and Promsex, joined efforts and filed a complaint before the IACHR in April 2009. Peru challenged the admissibility of the case, and presented various arguments to the Court on the merits.

The case was decided on the merits through the IACHR’s report 24/18. Given that Peru did not comply with the recommendations made by the IACHR, the case was referred to the Court in August 2018. The Commission noted this would be the first case before the IACtHR dealing with violence against LGBTI persons. The Court held a hearing in August 2019, and decided the case in March 2020, making significant findings of facts and law.

The arbitrary detention of LGBTI persons can be inferred when there are signs of discrimination and no other apparent reason for the detention

Peru argued that the detention of Azul took place in order to carry out an identity check as she did not have her ID with her (124). Peru disputed the length of the detention. However, the Court found that the detention was not carried out in accordance with domestic law, that one of the officers who detained Azul knew who she was, and that derogatory comments about her sexual orientation were made. The Court, following the views of the UN Working Group on arbitrary detention and those of the expert Maria Mercedes Gómez, considered that the lack of a legal basis for Azul’s detention and the existence of discriminatory elements together inferred that she was detained based on her sexual orientation (128), which automatically rendered the arrest arbitrary. The development of this standard could be crucial to combat arbitrary arrests of LGBTI people around the world for reasons based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including in the context of COVID-19.

The purposive element of the definition of torture incorporates discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity

Peru alleged that it was not proven that sexual violence took place, because the domestic courts were unable to establish it due to the lack of direct evidence of the crime (138 and pleadings before the IACHR). It also argued that torture did not take place because two elements of the crime were missing: the intent and the purpose.

The IACtHR concluded Azul was anally raped while in detention. In contrast to the domestic courts’ approach, the IACtHR reached this conclusion by assessing various pieces of evidence, including Azul’s statements, medical examinations and the forensic analysis of the clothes she wore at the time of the events (157). The IACtHR considered that what happened amounted to torture as the intentionality, severity and purposive elements were met. Further, the Court expanded the list of specific purposes by which sexual violence can constitute torture, to include the motive of discrimination based on the sexual orientation or gender identity of the victim. Following the expert opinions of Juan Méndez and Maria Mercedes Gómez, the Court found that sexual violence that involves anal rape, especially when carried out with a tool of authority such as a police baton, all while derogatory remarks were made, shows that the specific motive of the crime was to discriminate against Azul (163).

The Court went further to label it as a hate crime given that it was the result of prejudice (165), and stated that the crime not only breached Azul’s rights but also the freedom and dignity of the whole LGBTI community (165). This finding constitutes a major development under international law as this is the first case decided by an international tribunal to conclude that torture can take place with the specific purpose of discriminating against a person because of sexual orientation or gender identity.

States have a duty to investigate violence motivated by discrimination against members of the LGBTI community

Peru argued that as soon as it learned about Azul’s allegations, it opened an investigation that was carried out with due diligence (172), although this was disputed by Azul’s legal representatives. Given the prevailing levels of impunity for such crimes in the Americas the IACtHR made a careful assessment of the facts in this regard.

The IACtHR reiterated its case law regarding due diligence in cases of sexual violence, but extended their application to violence against LGBTI persons, adding new dimensions to its existing standards. Notably, the Court found that when investigating violence States have a duty to take all necessary steps to clarify if it was motivated by prejudice and discrimination (196). The Court said that this implies that the State should collect all the required evidence, provide full reasons for its decisions and decide in an impartial and objective manner. The authorities should not ignore any facts that could establish that the violence was motivated by discrimination (196). In the case of Azul, the authorities never considered discrimination and did not pursue this line of investigation. This finding by the Court demonstrates its ongoing dialogue with the ECtHR, as it took note of Identoba (67) (which set a similar precedent but in relation to ill-treatment). However, in contrast to the ECtHR, the IACtHR does not make any reference to the difficulty of the task or the fact that it is, in the views of the ECtHR, “an obligation of best endeavours, and is not absolute”.

The Court also noted that investigations should avoid the use of stereotypes. In this case, local prosecutors undermined the declaration of Azul by stating, “but if you are gay, how am I going to believe you?” (200), and by inquiring about her past sex-life. The Court noted that such stereotypical lines of inquiry should not be used in cases of sexual violence, including when that violence is committed against members of the LGBTI community (202). This is another important contribution of the Court to the protection of LGBTI people under international law, which does not exist under ECHR jurisprudence.

The IACtHR tackles structural discrimination through reparations

The IACtHR ordered very holistic forms of reparation for both individual as well as societal harm. From an individual perspective, the Court recognised Azul and her mother as victims in the case and awarded them compensation for pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage. The Court also ordered that there should be a public ceremony, where senior government figures recognise the State’s international responsibility (232-234). It also required the State to provide rehabilitation to Azul for physical and psychological harm, including access to medicines and transport expenses necessary to undergo treatment (236).

But what is most remarkable about this judgment, and which Peru challenged during the litigation, are the measures requested by Azul and awarded by the Court to address structural discrimination as a cause of hate crimes. The Court ordered Peru to adopt a protocol for the effective criminal investigation of violence against members of the LGBTI community. The protocol shall be binding under domestic law, instruct State representatives to abstain from applying stereotypes (242), and include due diligence standards developed by the Court in the judgement (243). The Court instructed the State to provide training to members of the justice system and the police on LGBTI rights and due diligence investigations. Additionally, Peru must implement a data collection system to officially register all cases of violence against members of the LGBTI community, including disaggregated information (252).

Finally, the Court ordered Peru to eliminate from its local/regional security plans the reference to ‘eliminate homosexuals and transvestites’ since this exacerbates discrimination against members of the LGBTI community (255).

So far Peru has not commented publicly on the judgment, and it is expected that it will act in good faith and implement the judgment in full.  

Conclusion

The case of Azul Rojas Marin enhances the protection of LGBTI persons from violence and discrimination.

This decision is also a wake-up call for States, at a time when some governments in the region, including Peru and Panama, are responding to COVID-19 by adopting a gender-based alternating lock-down schedule restricting essential business such as grocery shopping. These new measures take into account only the sex that appears in identity documents, and such a simplistic method has generated a negative reaction from the LGBTI community. Hopefully, the Inter-American decision in Azul’s case will remind authorities that even emergency responses should not lead to discrimination, especially when the particular vulnerabilities of the LGBTI community require a more sensitive approach.

Author’s note: The authors of this blog have been representing Azul in the litigation before the Inter-American System on behalf of REDRESS.

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