The family of a Peruvian student and activist who died while in police custody in Bali have spoken out about their ordeal. Rodrigo Ventocilla, 32, was arrested at Bali Airport on the 6th of August on a drug-related charge. He died in hospital on the 11th of August while still in police custody. Ventocilla’s case has received increasing interest from around the world after his family has spoken out about how the case has been handled.
When Indonesian police broke the news of Ventocilla’s arrest and subsequent death he was misgendered and referred to by initials only, not his legal name and shared no images of him. This was not a mistranslation, in Bahasa Indonesia ‘dia’ is the pronoun for the English ‘he/she’; police and local media outlets explicitly misgendered Ventocilla throughout their initial reporting.
It has now come to light that Ventocilla was traveling to Bali with his husband for their honeymoon although they arrived on different flights. According to his family, they believe the transgender activist and Harvard Student was the victim of transphobic and racist abuse during his time in police custody.
Ventocilla’s family has spoken out to share their side of the story, while police in Bali remains resolute that his cause of death was as a result of organ failure after falling ill after taking medications that were not confiscated during his initial interrogation.
He was arrested on the suspicion of possessing marijuana, though his family has not confirmed that they believe he was carrying marijuana; only stating that they believe he was arrested for possessing medications ‘linked to his mental health treatment, for which he had a prescription from healthcare professionals’.
His family has released a statement confirming their understanding of the events that surrounded Ventocilla’s death. The statement explains how Ventocilla’s husband Sebastián Marallano arrived on a different flight and was later detained himself while trying to help and understand what had happened to his husband. The couple was transferred to Bhayangkara Hospital after Ventocilla became violently ill, and subsequently, Sanglah Central Hospital where he died on the 11th of August.
His family argues that ‘the real cause of his death’ remains unknown and that the statement that ‘organ failure throughout his body’ is an insufficient explanation of what could have happened. His family is accusing the Indonesian authorities of obstructing access to the hospitals and that they were ‘never able to communicate or know of Rodrigo’s health status/diagnosis’. They have also shared that they have been blocked from conducting an independent post-mortem.
The spokesperson for the Indonesian Foreign Affairs Ministry, Teuku Faizasyah, told a virtual press conference on Monday that officials in Indonesia have not received any communication from authorities in Peru following the news.
Indonesian authorities are focusing on the reason for Ventocilla’s initial arrest which they state was a small amount of marijuana. While marijuana is illegal in Indonesia even for medical use, even if paperwork can be produced to confirm that the drugs were prescribed by a doctor, it does not explain why Ventocilla’s health declined so rapidly, and as his family claim, he was denied legal representation and access to his relatives for support while in hospital.
Faizasyah told reporters ‘From what I have read in mass media, this [case] is linked to alleged smuggling of narcotics. In relation to this, there is a process that must be handled by the police. In terms of what has caused his death, it’s best to ask the questions to the police’.
Authorities in Peru have been contacted by the media for comment but did not appear to be willing to investigate the case. The Peruvian Foreign Ministry’s statement reads ‘It is widely known that Indonesia has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to possession of drugs and their derivatives’. Much like the Indonesian authorities, the focus remains on Ventocilla’s drug charge not what could have happened to him while in police custody.
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