Monday, 17 August 2009

Human Rights Watch says Iraqi gays face murder, torture campaign

A leading rights group says that Iraqi militias are conducting a campaign of torture and murder against men suspected of homosexual activity, adding that government security forces may be involved.

BEIRUT , LEBANON ( AUGUST 17, 2009) REUTERS - Iraqi militias are conducting a campaign of torture and murder against men suspected of homosexual activity, a leading rights group said on Monday, adding that government security forces may be involved.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the killings began earlier this year in the poor Sadr City district of Baghdad, once ruled by Shi'ite Muslim militias, and had since spread to many cities across Iraq. HRW released a report in Beirut on Monday on abuses related to sexual orientation and gender in Iraq.

''What we found was disturbing. We heard stories of murder, extra judicial executions, brutal torture, abductions, beatings and threats. The target of this killing campaign which was focused mainly in Baghdad but also spread to other cities in Iraq was gay men and men who challenge social norms of masculinity or signs which were interpreted as homosexuality, feminisation or westernisation, all exposed people to violence. We cannot accurately estimate the scope of this campaign. However, our conversations with human rights activists, U.N. workers, and doctors in hospitals have led us to believe that the killings may easily number in the hundreds,'' said activist Rasha Moumneh.

Homosexual conduct is prohibited almost everywhere in the Middle East, but conditions have become especially dangerous for gays and lesbians in Iraq since the rise of religious militias after U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein 6-1/2 years ago.

Shi'ite Muslim militias once held sway over many areas of Baghdad and Iraq's Shi'ite south, but a series of government crackdowns in the past two years has weakened their presence.

Sunni Islamist militants such as al Qaeda have also spread religious intolerance.

HRW said it had been told that in some attacks Iraqi security forces had "colluded and joined in the killing".

''The evidence we gathered suggest that the Mehdi army is the primary but perhaps not the only perpetrator of this campaign. Mehdi Army spokesmen have actively promoted fear about the feminisation of Iraqi men suggesting that militia action is the only cure despite increasing media reports on the killings both locally and internationally, the Iraqi government has done nothing to quell the violence,'' said Moumneh.

Iraq's Interior Ministry said accusations of the involvement of its forces in gay slayings must be accompanied by evidence. It also said secrecy and stigma attached to homosexuality means that few come forward with complaints of abuse.

Ministry spokesman Major General Abdul-Karim Khalaf said it is the nature of Iraqi society that they do not get clear complaints on this issue as the relatives of victims consider talking about the subject worse than the crime itself. The silence means it is difficult to know how many people have been killed in homophobic attacks, but HRW said hundreds may have died.

There is no law against homosexuality in Iraq, but it can be punished under laws meant to protect public order and morality.

In March, the bodies of four gay men were found in Sadr City, each bearing a sign reading "pervert" in Arabic, police said.

Many gay Iraqi men have fled to other countries, such as Turkey, out of fear for their lives.

HRW carried testimony from victims, including one man who said his partner of 10 years was taken from his home at night in April by four men dressed in black and wearing masks.

''And they came to take my partner at his parents' house. Four armed men barged into the house masked and wearing black. They asked for him by name. They insulted him and took him in front of his parents. All that I heard about later from his family. He was found in the neighbourhood the day after. They had thrown his corpse into the garbage. His genitals were cut off and a piece of his throat was ripped out. I feel as if my life is pointless. I don't have family now. I cannot go back to the country I have a death warrant. I feel the best thing to do is just to kill myself. In Iraq, murderers and thieves are respected more than gay people,'' said the man whose statement was read out by Scott Long, an HRW activist, during the conference.