In a landmark ruling for transgender rights, the Honduras government has been found responsible for the 2009 murder of the trans woman and activist Vicky Hernández. The ruling, at the inter-American court of human rights, was published on the 12th anniversary of Hernández’s death, and marks the first time the highest regional human rights court has held a state accountable for failing to prevent, investigate and prosecute the death of a trans person.
The court has ordered Honduras, which has the world’s highest rate of murders of trans people, to pay reparations to Hernández’s family and implement a sweeping range of measures designed to protect trans people, including anti-discrimination training for security forces and state collection of data on violence against LGBTQ+ people.
It also ruled that the state must allow people to alter their gender identity on identification documents and public records. This could set an important precedent for Central America, where most countries do not allow people to legally change their gender.
Hernández, a 26-year-old trans woman, activist and sex worker from San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras, was killed by a single gunshot to her head, a crime for which no one was ever charged.
Lawyers acting on behalf of Cattrachas, a Honduran LGTBQ+ advocacy organisation that brought the case, successfully argued that the Honduran state had violated Hernández’s right to life, to a fair trial and judicial protection by failing to properly investigate her death and failing to take into account the evidence that her murder was connected to her identity as a trans woman.
The court’s ruling found “a context of violence against LGBTI people, and in particular against trans women who are sex workers” and a “context of impunity” for acts of violence against trans women. The Honduras government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Hernández was killed on the first night of the June 2009 coup d’état, in which the Honduran military ousted President Manuel Zelaya and enforced night-time curfews across the country. The curfews were brought in to contain demonstrations against the coup, but were part of wider crackdown in which journalists, teachers, students and LGBTQ+ people were targeted.
Hernández, who relied on sex work to survive, had been on the streets with two other trans women when they saw a police car coming towards them. Fearing violence, they ran in different directions. The next morning, Hernández was found dead.
The authorities dismissed her murder as a “crime of passion”, said Angelita Baeyens, director of litigation and advocacy at Robert F Kennedy Human Rights, a Washington-based non-profit organisation that assisted Cattrachas in bringing the claim. The police did not interview anyone from the crime scene, never examined the bullet casing found near Hernández and it is not clear whether they performed a postmortem examination on her.
Lawyers working on Hernández’s case argued that state agents actually committed the murder. “She was murdered during a curfew, on the first night of the coup d’etat, when only security forces were on the streets,” said Baeyens.
The court ruling, which ordered Honduras to restart its investigation into Hernández’s death, found “several indications of the participation of state agents”.
For those involved in bringing the case against the Honduran authorities, the significance of Hernández’s murder is that her death ushered in a new era of violence against trans women.
Cattrachas, which has documented violence against LGBTQ+ people in Honduras for two decades, recorded a total of 20 deaths of LGBTQ+ people in the 15 years leading up to the 2009 coup d’etat. In the eight months afterwards, it recorded 31 deaths of LGBTQ+ people, 15 of whom were trans women. These women were all found on streets and all showed signs of having been violently assaulted.
There was “a pattern of social cleansing against trans women”, said Indyra Mendoza, the founder of Cattrachas. Of the two trans women to see Hernández last, one of them, Michelle Torres, was murdered months later; the other, Fergie Alice, was killed just over a year afterwards. “Vicky’s death set a precedent,” said Mendoza. “There’s a ‘before Vicky’s death’ and an ‘after Vicky’s death’.”
Claudia Spellmant, founder of the Honduran trans collective Colectivo Unidad Color Rossa and a witness in the case, knew Hernández well. Hernández used to visit Spellmant’s San Pedro Sula office regularly, at first for condoms and to attend safety training, but later as an active member of the collective. “She really became a public face and a defender of human rights of trans women,” said Spellmant.
Hernández’s activism may have made her more vulnerable. “Just to be born trans puts your life at risk in Honduras,” said Spellmant, “but to be trans and to be a human rights defender just escalates your risk so much.”
The case is hugely significant for Spellmant, who fled Honduras for New York City in 2013 after increasing harassment from the authorities. She gave testimony at the virtual trial at the inter-American court last November along with an expert witness, Marlene Wayar, an Argentinian social psychologist and trans woman. “This is a case about a trans woman, presented by trans women,” said Spellmant. “That’s historic on many levels.”
Transphobia in Latin America remains pervasive and deadly and trans women in the region have a life expectancy of between 30 and 35 years. “This [ruling] is a roadmap for other states in the region that have similar a context of violence and discrimination against trans women and LGBTI people more generally,” said Baeyens.
While the decision offers the beginnings of justice for Hernández and her family, the next challenge is the battle for enforcement. “The inter-American court has absolutely no teeth,” said Juliana Martínez, an associate professor at American University, Washington DC, who focuses on gender and sexuality in Latin America. “That doesn’t mean that [the decision] is meaningless; it is very powerful,” she said. “But legal decisions have limits and we’ve seen that repeatedly in the region.”
Although Latin American countries have passed legislation over the past decade to protect LGTBQ+ rights, enforcement is often irregular. Court rulings such as this one, said Martínez, can be “weaponised by gender-restrictive movements or politicians”. In Costa Rica, a conservative evangelical pastor, Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz, rose to prominence in the country’s 2018 national elections campaigning against an inter-American court of human rights decision that same-sex couples must have equal marriage rights.
Martínez said: “Any legal victory is temporal and it’s fragile if it doesn’t go hand in hand with a cultural shift.” In the 12 years since the coup, Cattrachas has recorded 117 killings of trans women. “The Honduran state is a very hostile country,” said Mendoza, “it’s not only violent and deadly, but also religious fundamentalism here has a lot of power.” However, she believes the ruling will bring international pressure on Honduras to act.
For now, Mendoza plans to celebrate the significance of a tiny LGBTQ+ organisation bringing a historic case on such a significant stage. “Vicky’s case is a form of collective justice for every trans woman in Latin America,” said Mendoza, “because we know that Vicky’s life is a reflection of what it is like to be trans in Latin America.”
Afghanistan’s top TV interviewer: ‘I’ve assimilated the fact that the Taliban will kill me in the end’ | USA
Saeed Shinwari, one of the stars of Afghanistan’s ToloTV, has not left its headquarters in the center of Kabul for a month. Every day, he wakes up wondering whether the Taliban might take his life, recalling the day the fundamentalists entered the Afghan capital on August 15 and searched his house. A week earlier, the secret services of the now toppled former government had warned him he was on a hit list. “I’ve assimilated the fact that the Taliban will kill me in the end,” he said flatly, further disheartened by the fact that he has no contacts to get him out of the country.
Shinwari hasn’t seen his family at all in that time, he confided from the compound where he works, eats, sleeps and, above all, despairs. The 31-year-old journalist has a wife and four children, but is the main breadwinner for an extended family that includes his parents, sisters, brothers and nephews. “They came to my house and turned everything inside out. My mother asked them what they were looking for and they told her it was some card linking me to the government [Shinwari did work as a spokesperson for a government agency in 2019]. Since then, the stress means I can’t eat, or smile, I feel depressed. What can I do?”
He is aware of the public relations campaign the Taliban have deployed, targeting international journalists. “One thing the [former government] and the Taliban have in common, or actually every government in this country since the mujahideen, is that they love the foreign press, but they hate the local media,” he said. “If the Taliban stop you,” he told this reporter, “they will treat you with respect; if they stop me, they will most likely beat me up because of my shows and my career.”
The big question that I ask myself, that all Afghans ask themselves, is why the world has done this to us, why they have abandoned us
This is not the first time Shinwari has potentially faced violence. He suffered threats from the local branch of the Islamic State (ISIS-K) in his native Nangarhar, where he started working as a journalist nine years ago. But national recognition came when he signed up to work at ToloNews in 2017. His talk show, a format similar to the BBC’s Hard Talk, achieved fame for the sharpness of his questions and how he made his guests uncomfortable.
That is, until the Taliban came along. “They just show up here for us to interview them without regard for whether it is newsworthy,” he said indignantly. A few days ago, Abdul Hanan Haqqani, a leader of the movement’s most hardline faction, stopped by to be interviewed by Shinwari. “When we finished, he said he was surprised that I had treated him in a balanced way. I replied that if I knew they were not going to kill me, I would have asked him a lot of questions that interest people,” he said, though it is perhaps possible he just thought about saying that. What is certain is that many of those who follow his show have asked him what is wrong, and why he is no longer so inquisitive.
”We are going on the air with a lot of censorship,” he confessed. “I hate them with all my might. They’ve taken our country away from us. If you lose money, it’s okay, you can get it back; but if you lose your country, you’ve lost everything,” he lamented. “The big question that I ask myself, that all Afghans ask themselves, is why the world has done this to us, why they have abandoned us,” he concluded.
Tolo’s owner, Saad Mohseni, confirmed that they have had “several workers beaten and threatened,” without going into detail about Shinwari’s case. ToloTV was Afghanistan’s first private television network and something of a revolution in news and entertainment. It also operated with an inclusive policy for gender and ethnicity. Mohseni told EL PAÍS that most of its female employees had resigned after the arrival of the Taliban. Meanwhile, journalists from other Afghan media have also been brutally beaten for attempting to cover a demonstration.
‘He saw the panic’: the Afghan men who fell from the US jet | Global development
When Zaki Anwari scaled the fence of Kabul airport, he was determined to escape. The 17-year-old footballer with the Afghan national youth team had taken a break from studying maths for his exams to accompany his brother as he tried to catch a flight. Zaki had always told his family he was not interested in going abroad, unless he could return to Afghanistan.
But the Taliban takeover had changed things. Zaki did not have a passport but, as night fell on Kabul after the Taliban took control of the city, he told his brother Zakir that he wanted to leave. Zakir did his best to talk him out of it, but he would not let go of the idea.
Zaki was one of at least a dozen men who clambered onboard the outside of a US air force C-17 Globemaster transport plane as it taxied on the runway the following day. None of them made it to the plane’s destination, the Al Udeid airbase in Qatar.
The plane had landed a short while earlier to deliver equipment to US forces. The night before, another aircraft had evacuated 823 people fleeing the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and Zaki joined the new arrivals on the airport runway, hoping for a similar escape.
Monday 16 August was clear and bright, and the young athlete was supposed to be guarding the family’s car with Zakir while their older brother, Naser, jostled among people outside the airport clutching documents to leave.
Just before 11am, Zaki called Ahmad, the only brother still at home, to tell him he had jumped over the perimeter wall around the airport. “I’m close to the airplane now, they’ll register our names after they put us in the plane, and then I’ll lose [the] phone signal. I’m going to throw my phone away,” he said.
Ahmad shouted at him to come home until Zaki hung up. Twenty minutes later, Zaki called his mother to speak to his sister, telling her that he felt he had a chance to board the plane, and asking her to pray for him. His mother put him on speaker to scream at him to come home, chiding him that he had no passport or travel documents.
Seeing the crowds rushing towards the plane, the crew decided that they had to take off. The hulking grey aircraft began taxiing as throngs of people ran alongside it. Amid the chaos, a small number climbed on to a wide fairing above the wheels and a smooth broad area above the wheel well.
Video shared by Asvaka, an Afghan news agency, shows the men smiling nervously and waving to others gathered next to the tarmac, with at least 12 onboard. Some waved excitedly, the wind whipping their hair as the plane picked up speed. Two jumped off and made a dash back into the crowd before the plane took off.
Shocked bystanders looked up at the sky, some filming on their phones, as at least two bodies fell from the plane as it flew south over Kabul. Afghans commenting online drew comparisons to the “Falling Man”, photographed falling from the twin towers on 11 September 2001, a grim bookend to the US presence in Afghanistan. The men who fell were barely children, some not even born, when the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan 20 years earlier.
Fada Mohammad, 24 , was born into a world of civil war and Taliban rule four years before the US invasion in 2001. The young dentist had long dreamed of leaving, but lacked a plan or the financial means. His father, Payenda Mohammad, said Fada had been looking for ways to find money since getting married last year.
“Fada had talked about wanting to travel, but financially things were bad here. Anyone looking at the situation in this country would want to be elsewhere, and Fada was no different,” Payenda said. Fada was the family’s breadwinner, supporting 13 others.
Fada left as usual for work on the morning of 16 August. His wife and family had no idea he was heading to the airport. “He said goodbye to us just like any normal day, when he left for work at 8.30am,” said Payenda. “He didn’t say anything about the airport, or travel.”
Even in his grief, Ahmad tried to understand why Zaki clung to the plane. “He saw the panic, he saw the Taliban – anyone would be scared,” he said.
What happened next is the subject of an investigation by the US air force. Its spokeswoman, Ann Stefanek, said the plane was surrounded by civilians who had breached the airport walls before it could offload its cargo. “Faced with a rapidly deteriorating security situation around the aircraft, the C-17 crew decided to depart the airfield as quickly as possible,” she said. American helicopters flew in front of the plane to clear space on the runway to take off.
The official account and videos indicate that the pilot was either unable to see the men clinging to the plane after takeoff, or was unwilling to stop the plane. The flap the men had used to climb on to the wheel well folds under the aircraft as the landing gear are retracted. Those who did not fall were probably crushed to death.
“In addition to videos seen online and in press reports, human remains were discovered in the wheel well of the C-17 after it landed at Al Udeid air base, Qatar. The aircraft is currently impounded to provide time to collect the remains and inspect the aircraft before it is returned to flying status,” said Stefanek.
Authorities in Kabul maintain that the US crew could have acted differently. “Those men thought the pilot would stop and transfer them to the inside of the plane,” said an Afghan health ministry official, who tried to identify some of the men after they fell to their deaths. The official has not been named for his own safety.
One of the men fell inside the airport perimeter, while two more hit rooftops in a neighbourhood close to the airport. A resident who heard a body land on a roof described it as sounding “like a bomb”.
The Anwaris said that, not long after the plane had taken off, someone called Zaki’s sister from his phone to tell her they had found his body. The family believe Zaki was crushed under the wheels of the plane as it departed, or possibly in the landing gear as it retracted into the wheel well.
Fada’s wife grew concerned after her husband did not call as usual at 10am to say he’d arrived at work. “Then at 2pm, we got a call from a stranger asking if we know Fada Mohammad,” said Payenda. The stranger said they had found Fada’s body, and that he had been thrown from the aircraft. Payenda rushed to collect his son’s body.
The brother of another victim, 15-year-old Mateen, told the Pajhwok news agency that the family had been unable to find him after spotting Mateen in a video showing the group sitting on a tyre on the plane. “There were 21 men sitting on the plane, two jumped before it flew, yet we only saw 12 bodies in the hospital,” he said. “We didn’t hear from [Mateen], we couldn’t find his body – we went everywhere. The bodies fell in so many areas.”
The official, whose time at the health ministry predates the Taliban, said knowing precisely how many men died falling from the aircraft, and identifying them, became almost impossible in the aftermath of the fall of the government.
“Their bodies were so badly damaged by the fall, it was hard to identify them. There was no government to investigate the incident,” he said. “If you knew the Taliban, then you’d understand why the men did this.”
EU’s new low point on Palestine
As the EU struggles to weigh in on challenging developments in its neighbourhood, the last thing it needs is diverting its focus to wholly misguided priorities. A case in point is the EU’s current preoccupation with Palestinian textbooks, promoted by European commissioner Olivér Várhelyi and Israel-aligned lawmakers in the European Parliament.
The new Israeli government has explicitly vowed to continue building illegal settlements and not to allow the two-state solution, the cornerstone of EU policy on the conflict.
Yet Brussels institutions are devoting more time to an entirely different, peripheral issue: an EU-funded study of Palestinian Authority schoolbooks, published in June by the Georg-Eckert Institute in Germany.
Several committees of the European Parliament are involved in discussing the issue during this month, following closed door meetings of EU-27 diplomats earlier in the summer.
The study was meant to assess allegations that the Palestinian curriculum promotes hatred and violence against Israel. Israel advocates have made such claims for many years, using cherrypicked examples with a heavy dose of spin. Some Western politicians have always taken such assertions at face value instead of treating them critically as a part of Israel’s own nationalist narrative.
Although previous international studies, such as a 2013 study funded by the US government, disproved the sweeping allegations, the EU agreed in 2019 to fund a new study.
But unlike the US-funded study, which compared both Israeli and Palestinian textbooks (and found broadly similar levels of bias on both sides), the EU set out to examine schoolbooks on the Palestinian side only.
This went against the record of the Georg-Eckert Institute, which had hosted bilateral German-French, German-Czech and German-Polish textbook commissions to accommodate conflicting narratives through mutual dialogue – but now agreed to take a unilateral approach.
As Israeli researcher Assaf David commented, “[t]he very notion of examining only Palestinian textbooks with a fine-tooth comb, while completely ignoring their mirror image in Israeli textbooks, is fundamentally tendentious.”
According to US political scientist Nathan Brown, “[t]he analysis is written as if Palestinian textbooks cannot be understood except by relying heavily on how Israelis might view them – but without giving Israeli textbooks the same treatment.”
Despite these flaws, the resulting study once again greatly tempers the allegations. It neither claims nor shows evidence that the Palestinian textbooks incite hatred or violence. It documents debatable trends, such as omissions of Israel from Palestinian maps or positive portrayals of Palestinian armed struggle decades ago – but those mirror similar phenomena in Israeli society and schoolbooks.
Across a review of more than 150 PA textbooks, the study provides two examples characterised as antisemitic – but adds that both of them have been positively altered or removed in latest editions of the books.
Commissioner Várhelyi, in charge of the EU’s neighbourhood, has also sought to play up the issue. Despite the study’s moderate findings, he pledged to step up pressure on the PA to amend the textbooks “in the shortest possible timeframe” on the basis of a “roadmap” with “incentives” and a process of “screening and monitoring”.
The Hungarian Commissioner’s interest in amplifying the issue cannot be seen in isolation from his country’s special alliance with Israel under Viktor Orbán. Over the last years, Hungary blocked almost every EU foreign policy statement critical of Israel.
There is an extra hypocrisy here. Last year, Orbán’s government introduced a controversial new school curriculum in Hungary, which includes compulsory reading of antisemitic authors. Imre Kertész, a world-renowned writer on the Holocaust, was in turn scrapped from the reading list.
This does not seem to concern the MEPs professing outrage about the Palestinian curriculum.
Real problems with Palestinian Authority
Meanwhile, there are real, serious problems with the PA that require EU attention.
Following the cancellation of Palestinian elections scheduled for May, president Mahmoud Abbas is taking the PA down an authoritarian path, suppressing protests, and deepening intra-Palestinian divisions. To make textbooks – rather than these fundamental issues – a central topic in EU-PA relations would be entirely misplaced.
Antisemitism and direct incitement of hatred and violence should be red lines – but the study found hardly any. So what will the EU push to change? Will it ask to tone down emotive depictions of Israeli soldiers shooting at Palestinian children rather than work to end Israel’s occupation? Eleven children have been killed and over 500 injured by Israeli forces only in the West Bank since May. There is a point where textbook “improvements” turn into censorship, deciding for Palestinians what they can say about their history and lived experiences.
The whole idea that Palestinian anger towards Israel is driven by textbooks rather than the daily injustices Palestinians suffer under its occupation shows a lack of basic empathy.
While both sides tend to omit the other from their schoolbook maps, Israel’s expanding settlements are erasing any possibility of a Palestinian state on the ground. This leaves in place open-ended Israeli occupation and ethno-domination over the Palestinians – recently qualified by the Human Rights Watch as meeting the legal definition of apartheid.
Getting the EU bogged down in one-sided textbook revisions is a perfect way to deflect from that chilling development.
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