A war of words has broken out over claims by a transgender woman from South America that immigration and customs officers behaved "like animals'' during a body search and mocked her during a nine-hour ordeal at Chek Lap Kok airport.
Hong Kong officials strenuously deny the allegations and insist proper procedures were followed amid initial suspicions about her identity and the reason she arrived here from Taiwan.
The woman, who wants her name and nationality withheld for legal reasons, is now applying for asylum in the city. She fears that if she returns to the country of her birth she will be killed by bigots whose violent attacks she says forced her to leave.
Lawyers for the 25-year-old say her experience illustrates the levels of discrimination transgender people face as it emerged that at least two transgender women from Mongolia have been successfully re-located to a third country after gaining asylum in Hong Kong. Applications by two others, one the woman in the airport row and a Sri Lankan national, are being assessed.
The latest sanctuary bid comes as a direct result of the airport incident because it led Taiwan to block her return, sparking fears she would be deported back to her home country after being stabbed and shot at. Changes in her appearance due to hormone treatment prompted Taiwan to ask her to update her passport. The nearest consulate was in Hong Kong.
On her arrival in Hong Kong on September 16 she claims staff ridiculed her because she was dressed as a woman. She was refused entry because immigration officials could not verify her explanation about the passport with her country's consulate.
Later, two male customs officers took her to a small room to carry out a body search despite her repeated requests for a woman. She says they touched her penis and breasts with their hands, a claim customs officials deny.
"They were animals. I kept asking for a female but they said if I refused [the search] they would deport [me]. When it was over, I was destroyed."
A customs spokesman said: "The passenger had his clothes on during the whole search and customs officers did not touch any sensitive parts of his body."
She was released when officials verified her story.
The woman also claims she was mistreated by staff at Queen Elizabeth Hospital who wrongly diagnosed her as a psychiatric patient on September 30 and put her in restraints.
The hospital says the action was necessary as she was suicidal.