Metro Weekly

Peruvian Transgender Activist Dies in Police Custody in Indonesia

After being detained for alleged marijuana possession in Bali, Rodrigo Ventocilla died under unclear circumstances.

Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla (left) and Sebastián Marallano – Photo courtesy of the Ventosilla and Marallano families, via Instagram.

Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla, a trans activist from Peru and graduate student at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, died in Indonesian police custody while honeymooning with his husband earlier this month.

According to his family, customs police detained Ventosilla, 32, at the Bali airport for alleged marijuana possession on August 6. Two days later, he was transported to a hospital, where he died on August 11 from what Bali police called a “failure of bodily functions,” reports Reuters.

Police spokesman Stefanus Satake Bayu Setianto told Reuters that Ventosilla became sick after ingesting a medication that was not confiscated by police. He said the case is now closed.

Ventosilla’s husband, Sebastián Marallano, flew to Bali after Ventosilla and was likewise detained. Both their families said Marallano returned to Peru on August 17.

In a statement released on Instagram in Spanish, the couple’s families said police detained Ventosilla for having prescription medications linked to his mental health. They also said Ventosilla was denied legal representation and access to his partner and family while in police custody and accused the authorities who arrested Ventosilla of racist and transphobic discrimination.

Human Rights Watch researcher Kyle Knight told NBC News that denying lawyers and families access to Ventosilla was “indicative of something very suspicious.”

Peru’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs initially dismissed claims of Indonesian police misconduct. But after backlash from LGBTQ activists, the government said it had asked the Indonesian government to look into Ventosilla’s treatment, according to The Washington Post.

On Instagram, the couple’s families said Peruvian authorities failed to adequately support Ventosilla and Marallano.

‘We demand that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs assume its responsibility for neglecting its duties, and conduct an investigation regarding the actions and omissions of Consul Julio Eduardo Tenorio Pereyra,” the Instagram post read.

On Monday, August 29, the families announced they filed a complaint against both Peruvian and Indonesian officials for violating Ventosilla and Marallano’s human rights.

Diversidades Trans Masculinas, a group founded by Ventosilla to support transmasculine people, had previously demanded justice in a statement posted to Facebook on August 24.

“We call on all human rights organizations, feminists, transfeminists, unions, grassroots organizations, and citizens in general, to fight for the justice that Rodrigo deserves,” the group wrote in Spanish.

Harvard Kennedy School, where Ventosilla studied, echoed the group’s call.

“The statement from Rodrigo’s family raises very serious questions that deserve clear and accurate answers,” the school’s statement said. “Harvard Kennedy School supports the family’s call for an immediate and thorough investigation and for public release of all relevant information.”

Indonesia, a conservative Muslim-majority nation, maintains harsh penalties for drug-related offenses — as do many other Asian countries, especially those with strong authoritarian regimes. For instance, in 2021, Harm Reduction International found that Indonesia had imposed 89 death sentences for drug offenders.

While Indonesia, especially the tourism-dependent island of Bali, has historically courted LGBTQ travelers, the country’s LGBTQ citizens enjoy limited rights, and same-sex relationships are not legally recognized. In some parts of the country where Sharia law is in effect, such as Aceh province, homosexual acts are punishable by public caning.

In more recent years, the government has used public obscenity and pornography laws to target the LGBTQ community as part of an effort to court socially conservative voters. In the province of West Java, police even set up a task force a few years ago for the purpose of spying on, arresting, and bringing criminal charges against individuals suspected of promoting homosexuality.

Knight, the Human Rights Watch researcher, told NBC News that Ventosilla’s arrest follows years of decline in Indonesian LGBTQ rights.

“Since 2016, there has been a government-driven effort to slander, stigmatize and render insecure LGBT people across the country,” Knight said.

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