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Transgender woman
tells panel of prison abuse

Transgender woman
tells panel of prison abuse

Suffering years of violence and harassment as a transsexual in Mexico, Mayra Soto sought asylum in what she hoped would be a more tolerant United States. But the trauma continued here. She was detained in an immigrant detention center in Los Angeles and forced by a guard to perform oral sex on him under the threat of violence, she said.

Soto's story, relayed tearfully to a bipartisan federal panel Wednesday, was one of many allegations of guards taking advantage of immigrant detainees. The guard in Soto's case eventually pleaded guilty to sexual assault and served a six-month sentence. But Soto told the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission--whose eight members include presidential and congressional appointees--that her punishment was much worse: Guards moved her to a cell with accused murderers and rapists, she claimed.

''I took this as another form of retaliation,'' said Soto, 33, sobbing. ''I still don't know how they could justify placing someone as feminine as me in the same unit as murders and rapists.''

The two-day hearing in a federal courtroom is the sixth held by the commission nationwide but the first to focus on sexual abuse of immigrants held in federal detention facilities. The panel, led by a federal judge and made up of business leaders, academics, and human rights workers, was formed by Congress in 2003 to find ways of deterring prison rape--a crime that has claimed an estimated 1 million victims in 20 years, according to the commission.

Outside the courtroom, Soto--an Orange County, Calif., hairdresser who has been granted a temporary right to stay and work in the U.S.--said she hoped the pain of recalling her horror in public would lead officials to make changes. ''It's very painful for me. It brings back the fear, the trauma, the pain,'' Soto said. ''But I think they need to know what is happening.'' (AP)

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