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Trans Harvard grad student dies in Indonesia after alleged police misconduct

Rodrigo Ventocilla was a Harvard Kennedy School student and a trans rights activist.

A transgender Harvard graduate student was pronounced dead in police custody at a hospital in Indonesia this month, five days after he was arrested and allegedly mistreated by police, the Harvard Crimson reported Tuesday.

Rodrigo Ventocilla, 32, was a Harvard Kennedy School student from Peru and was known as a prominent trans rights activist.

The Crimson reported that Ventocilla had traveled to Bali for his honeymoon with his spouse and was detained by police for alleged drug possession as soon as he arrived on Aug. 6.

“His family alleges he was arrested in an ‘act of racial discrimination and transphobia,’ deprived of basic rights, and subjected to police violence while family members and lawyers were kept in the dark about his condition,” the newspaper wrote.

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The Crimson reported that a Bali newspaper wrote that police in Bali are looking into Ventocilla’s death, but that the focus of the inquiry is vague and it’s unclear whether the findings of the investigation will be released to the public.

The Crimson also reported that the head of public relations for Bali police previously told a different Indonesian news outlet that Ventocilla died after consuming unseized drugs on Aug. 8 while in police custody. 

Ventocilla died Aug. 11.

In their statement, the Crimson reported, Ventocilla’s family doubts the explanation of Bali police, saying that they have not allowed an independent autopsy.

According to the Crimson, Bali police say Ventocilla was arrested after authorities found an herb grinder, items they suspected contained cannabis, and two pill tablets in his luggage.

But in their statement, the Crimson reported, Ventocilla’s family said he was arrested for having prescription drugs he used as mental health treatment.

The Crimson wrote that one Indonesia news outlet reported that Ventocilla was initially brought to a hospital because he was suffering from stomach pain and vomiting, but that he was later transferred to a different hospital when his condition worsened.

But in their statement, the Crimson reported, Ventocilla’s family alleges that Indonesian police kept lawyers hired by the family and other Harvard students from ever entering the hospitals.

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Ventocilla’s family alleges that his spouse, Sebastían Marallano, arrived on a separate flight than Ventocilla, but was detained without charge after trying to help Ventocilla, the Crimson reported.

The family alleges that Marallano was also hospitalized after being in police custody, and that police demanded upwards of $200,000 for the return of the couple, the Crimson reported.

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In a statement, the Crimson reported, the families of Ventocilla and Marallano demanded the “Peruvian justice system to properly investigate the human rights violations of Rodrigo and Sebastian and to guarantee truth, justice and reparation.”

Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf wrote in a statement Wednesday that the school is in contact with the families and supports their calls for an investigation into Ventocilla’s death.

“We received yesterday a statement from Rodrigo’s family with their description of extremely disturbing circumstances surrounding Rodrigo’s death—a statement that talks about his arrest and detention just before his death, and that highlights his rights as a transgender man,” he wrote. 

“The statement from Rodrigo’s family raises very serious questions that deserve clear and accurate answers.”