The government of Nepal should allow lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) groups to operate freely and end arbitrary arrests of LGBT people, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should investigate threats and attacks against LGBT people. Widespread harassment, including by the government, has contributed to a climate of fear among LGBT people and activists in Nepal, and has interrupted vital activities, including HIV prevention work.
“The LGBT rights movement in Nepal is a regional and international leader but is under serious threat,” said Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “While Nepal has made immense progress on LGBT rights in the past decade, the government cannot afford to ignore the many problems facing LGBT people inside its borders.”
Attacks on Nepal’s LGBT activists have escalated in recent months from threats against individuals, to physical violence and abduction, Human Rights Watch said. Over the past six months, LGBT rights activists have reported being harassed by threatening text messages and being followed by people wearing masks who attempted to extort money or sex. Some have been forced by these masked figures to make negative on-camera statements against Blue Diamond Society, the national LGBT umbrella organization.
In December the Blue Diamond Society asked the inspector-general of the Nepal police to investigate threats against staff members, including threatening phone calls and being followed after dark. However, these and other threats and intimidation have neither been investigated nor punished and have contributed to a climate of fear among LGBT people. Many have been unable to congregate in public, conduct HIV prevention outreach activities, or express their views without fear of threats or reprisal.
Government harassment of the Blue Diamond Society has seriously threatened the group’s activities, Human Rights Watch said. Government officials have been delaying the renewal of the group’s operating license. A series of television news stories alleging corruption and incompetence by the Blue Diamond Society led to a government investigation, which halted the annual nongovernmental organization license renewal process, and froze their bank accounts.
The government has repeatedly said it would release a report regarding corruption allegations against Blue Diamond Society, but several months have passed and no report has been published. Meanwhile Blue Diamond Society, which acts as a central fiduciary coordinator for more than 30 LGBT organizations across Nepal, has passed audits and inspections by international donors.
The bureaucratic impasse means that the group’s health and human rights activities aimed at the LGBT population have come to a halt. Outreach workers across the country have reported a shortage of condoms and lubricant, which gravely impacts HIV prevention programs. With accounts frozen pending the conclusion of the government investigation and salaries not disbursed, staff living with HIV have reported that they cannot afford to eat nutritious food or travel to collect antiretroviral medications, which are disbursed only in monthly doses at central hospitals.
Exacerbating this situation, an uptick in police crackdowns on LGBT people has resulted in expensive fines and prolonged detention.
“The media attention and the prolonged government inaction have created a sense of lawlessness with regard to LGBT people,” a Health Ministry official told Human Rights Watch. “As a result, police feel they can do anything to these people because there will be no consequence.”
In early February, police arrested four transgender women and charged them under the Public Offense Act, a vaguely worded law that can result in up to 25 days in detention and a fine amounting to more than US$300. One of the arrested, Jamki S., told Human Rights Watch that she was harassed by a government official while in detention: “He said he wished he could charge all chakkas [a derogatory term for ‘transgender woman’ in Nepali] an even higher bail amount because he thinks we are all prostitutes and corrupt.”
Jyoti P., a transgender woman in Kathmandu, was arrested in March in a park in Kathmandu under the Public Offense Act and detained for two weeks. Her family eventually paid more than $300 in bail, she said.
“My parents know I am transgender but they do not accept me,” she told Human Rights Watch. “I live on the streets or with friends. I have been able to survive on my own for some years, but now that I had to take the bail money from them I will be subject to their anger.”
In the past two months, Blue Diamond Society has documented dozens of arrests of LGBT people under the Public Offense Act. The government charged a variety of bail amounts, totaling nearly $6,500.
This climate of fear has caused LGBT people to avoid public places associated with LGBT people and sex workers because it could lead to arrest. Such fear can keep HIV prevention outreach workers from performing their jobs, which include distributing condoms and lubricant.
In some instances, harassment and threats have escalated to physical violence.
In December, Anjali T., a transgender woman employee of an LGBT organization in Chitwan district, spoke on a television program defending Nepalis working on LGBT rights. She told Human Rights Watch that the following night she was pursued by three men, threatened for associating with the LGBT rights movement, beaten, injured, and left in the forest. She spent the following day in the hospital. The case was transferred to the Kathmandu police, which has not conducted an investigation.
Nepal’s government has made significant strides toward ensuring equality for LGBT people in recent years, including recognizing a third gender category on official documents. The government has also completed a proposal to amend all laws that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, in line with a landmark 2007 Supreme Court decision.
At the March United Nations regional seminar on sexual orientation, gender identity, and human rights hosted in Kathmandu, Nepal’s Minister for Women, Children, and Social Welfare applauded the country’s progress in LGBT rights, saying that, “The government of Nepal has been playing a major role in safeguarding the rights of the LGBT community.” In the same seminar, a government secretary said that, “The Government of Nepal has been very supportive toward positive policy changes in regards to the rights of LBGTI community.” However, the patterns of arbitrary arrests, failure to investigate threats and attacks, and relentless bureaucratic delays send a different message from the government, Human Rights Watch said.
“It smacks of high hypocrisy for the government to host an LGBT seminar for the Asia-Pacific region, while ignoring the rights of LGBT people at home,” Reid said. “The government needs to end the harassment against LGBT people and groups, which risks undermining the human rights and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment progress the country has achieved.”