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'No One Wants To Testify': Gruesome Murder Case Highlights Vulnerability Of Russia's Transgender Population

Transgender people are "one of the most socially vulnerable minorities in Russia," activists say. (file photo)

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- In June, a high school student discovered a decapitated and dismembered body in a swimming hole on the Mga River just outside St. Petersburg, Russia's second largest city.

Using the serial numbers of Irish-made breast implants found on the body, police identified the victim as 23-year-old Jamshid Hatamjonov, a transgender sex worker from Uzbekistan who preferred the name Tamara. She had disappeared in St. Petersburg five months earlier, on the night of January 12-13.

Last week, a court sanctioned the arrest of 53-year-old actor and theater producer Yury Yanovsky in connection with the case. Investigators allege that Yanovsky was Hatamjonov's last client and that he killed her in a St. Petersburg hotel using a knife and a saw.

Yury Yanovsky, who has been accused of murdering Jamshid Hatamjonov.
Yury Yanovsky, who has been accused of murdering Jamshid Hatamjonov.

The case, which has been all but ignored by local media, highlights the perilous vulnerability of transgender people in Russia, particularly those who have come to the country to escape even more dangerous intolerance in their home countries, activists say.

"The victim was a transsexual sex worker, a person who survived because of commercial sex," said Dzhonni Dzhibladze, the coordinator for transgender support of the St. Petersburg lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) group Vykhod (Escape). "This is a common story for transgender women from the near abroad, particularly Central Asia. In Uzbekistan, there is no procedure for changing the documents of transgender people."

In their home countries, many trans people face homophobia, as well as hostility and violence from relatives who feel "dishonored."

"Sometimes, if a story becomes public, [relatives] might even murder them," Dzhibladze added.

Unwilling To Turn To The Police

In Russia, however, transgender people from other countries often find themselves in vulnerable positions, victims of both homophobia and xenophobia.

"They have to go to their home countries every 90 days [under Russian migration law]," Dzhibladze said. "That costs money and, also, they can be victimized at the border by border and customs officials…. These women with men's passports can be cross-prosecuted on two criminal counts -- violating migration law and providing sex services. And deportation to Uzbekistan means a five-year ban on reentering Russia."

This predicament means that they are very often unwilling to turn to the police, even in cases when their lives are in danger.

"For them, the state is a greater threat than even the most insane client," Dzhibladze said.

Many transgender people in Russia say they are afraid to report crimes committed against them to the police. (file photo)
Many transgender people in Russia say they are afraid to report crimes committed against them to the police. (file photo)

"We know people who knew this murdered trans woman, who lived with her and, most likely, worked with her," Dzhibladze added. "But none of her acquaintances are willing to testify in court or even to admit that they knew the victim."

"No one knows what happened between the murdered trans woman and her client," he added. "But the important thing is that even if he threatened her, she couldn't turn to the police, whom she almost certainly feared more than even the most aggressive client."

A Vykhod report on the LBGT community in St. Petersburg in 2019 found that the vast majority of the survey's 342 respondents did not report incidents of hate-based discrimination or violence to the police. Fifty-four percent said they did not believe the police would help them effectively; 37 percent said they avoided all interaction with the police; 18 percent said they were unwilling to discuss their sexual orientation or transgender status with the police, while 9 percent said they feared their tormentor would find out that they had turned to the police and the situation would be made worse.

'Trans-Panic' Aggression

Transgender sex workers frequently encounter rage from clients who feel ashamed after interacting with them, said psychologist Dmitry Isayev.

"He doesn't like such feelings and does not accept them in himself," Isayev told RFE/RL, describing a phenomenon that is known by the term "trans-panic." "By destroying the object of his attraction, he tries to destroy this negative thing within himself. This mechanism leads transgender people to be the objects of aggression. We don't know how many are killed in Russia each year. Two or three cases are identified every year, but it is clear that there are many more that are hidden among the general murder statistics…."

"Many trans women are pushed into sex work because they can't find any other employment," said St. Petersburg trans woman Yekaterina Messorosh. "And this sphere is dangerous in general and fraught with violence, even without the element of transphobia. I have encountered instances of trans-panic myself and the aggression that comes with it."

Aleksei Sergeyev, coordinator of the Heterosexual-LGBT Alliance for Equality, said transgender people often encounter intolerance even within the LGBT community.

"I recently met a man from Kyrgyzstan who is gay, but who does not accept transgender people," Sergeyev said. "He said he would hand them over to be executed himself. Transphobia remains pretty strong even inside the LGBT community."

Activist Dzhibladze describes transgender people as "one of the most socially vulnerable minorities in Russia, particularly those who are not able to change their documents."

"For years they cannot get official work simply because their appearance does not match their passport," he said. "Only the most dangerous activity is open to them -- commercial sex work."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting from St. Petersburg by Tatyana Voltskaya, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service.