Transgender Harvard student dies in police custody while on honeymoon in Indonesia

A transgender advocate and Harvard graduate student died in police custody this month while on his honeymoon in the Indonesian tourist island of Bali.

Rodrigo Ventosilla, a 32-year-old transmasculine person from Peru, and his husband, Sebastián Marallano, were detained Aug. 7 by customs police at the Bali airport for illegal possession of marijuana, Peru’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

Two days after the arrest, Ventosilla was taken to the hospital, where he died on Aug. 11 due to “failure of bodily functions,” according to police spokesperson Stefanus Satake Bayu Setianto, who added that Ventosilla became sick after taking medication that had not been confiscated by authorities.

The families of Ventosilla and Marallano, who has since returned to Peru, have accused authorities in Bali of “police violence … racial discrimination and transphobia,” according to their statement on Instagram. They are also alleging that Ventosilla was not provided access to lawyers, his family or his partner while in police custody.

“It should be noted that at all times the Indonesian police blocked access to both the lawyers hired by the family, and Harvard students who attended their aid. The family was NEVER able to communicate or know Rodrigo’s health/diagnosis,” the family wrote in a statement.

However, in a statement Wednesday, Peru’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they have not found evidence of “racial discrimination and transphobia.” Ventosilla’s family is calling for a more thorough investigation.

Kyle Knight, a senior researcher on health and LGBTQ rights at Human Rights Watch, an international nongovernmental organization, said it is disturbing that authorities prevented “lawyers and activists and his partner from trying to get access to him. That’s indicative of something very suspicious.”

Knight added: “It’s pretty clear from the reports that we read, things went as badly as they could have.”

Ventosilla’s death follows a growing effort to roll back LGBTQ rights in Indonesia, Knight added.

“Since 2016, there has been a government-driven effort to slander, stigmatize and render insecure LGBT people across the country,” he said, citing Human Rights Watch reports from 2018 and 2016.

Bali is a known safe haven for queer and trans Indonesians, he said. However, he added, that changed last year when LGBTQ travelers began promoting the island as a queer-friendly tourist destination and provided advice on how to avoid Covid-19 restrictions.

It comes at no surprise, he said, that authorities escalated the arrest in this location.

“Rodrigo’s case falls into a couple of different overlapping patterns, including Indonesia’s drug laws are very, very strict and very intense,” he said, adding that “the police love nabbing foreigners, particularly in tourist hotspots like Bali.”

Prior to his death, Ventosilla was pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School. in a Wednesday’s statement, the school said Ventosilla’s family had raised “very serious questions that deserve clear and accurate answers.” The trans advocacy organization that Ventosilla was founded, Diversidades Trans Masculinas, is also calling for justice.

“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 organization wrote in a statement on Facebook. “His death should not go unpunished. When a trans person dies, they never die!”

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Reuters contributed.