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Indybay FeatureRelated Categories: Iraq | International | LGBTI / Queer
Baghdad Gays Fear for Their Lives
Homosexuals across the capital are being hunted down and murdered by Islamic militants and even the police.
By Basim al-Shara'a in Baghdad (ICR No. 199, 20-Oct-06)
Faris Thamir carefully watches the street in his Al-Batawin neighbourhood, afraid the police or militia men might try to kill him.
In Iraq, where religious radicals consider homosexuality a sin punishable by death, gays have good reason to worry about being “outed”.
Thamir, 35, is wary of the extremist Islamic groups that prowl the streets of the capital - but neither does he trust the police who are supposedly there to protect him.
Thamir and other gay men complain about frequent mistreatment by police, accusing them of blackmail, torture, sexual abuse and theft. "Policemen raped me several times at gunpoint and threatened to hand me over to extremist groups if I refuse," said Thamir.
Concern about the involvement of policemen in criminal acts have also been raised by western officials and Sunni Arab leaders who say the Shia-controlled interior ministry has been infiltrated by Shia militias, like the Badr Brigades, who allegedly use their uniforms as cover to kidnap, torture and murder.
Earlier this month, the head of 8th National Police Brigade, one of Baghdad's frontline police units, was detained on suspicion of involvement with sectarian death squads. Several thousand policemen have been dismissed and face prosecution for criminal acts.
Thamir does not count on any official help anymore. After spending a month in prison - during which he said he was tortured and beaten - police continued to pursue him. So he hid at a friend’s house - and only dares to go out twice a month, disguised as a woman.
For him, the Saddam era seems like a "golden" time because homosexuality was discreetly tolerated. "Now I am desperate because I expect either to be shot or beheaded at any moment," he said.
The legal situation for gays in Iraq today remains vague. According to research by Södertörn University in Stockholm, it is unclear to date whether a new law on the family, approved by the Interim Governing Council in December 2003, prohibits homosexual activities.
Under Islamic law, homosexual practise is a crime that carries the death sentence. Article two of the Iraqi constitution approved by referendum in December 2005 refers to Islam as being "the official religion of the state and a basic source of legislation". But the extent to which state laws upholds Sharia is still under dispute.
Meanwhile, the witch-hunt against the country’s gays has apparently received a blessing from one of the highest religious authorities in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
According to the London-based gay human rights group OutRage!, a website linked to Sistani in the Iranian city of Qom posted a fatwa against gays in October 2005. "The people involved [in homosexuality] should be killed in the worst, most severe way," it said. Although the text was removed from the website in May 2006, the fatwa has not been officially revoked.
Inhabitants of the Baghdadi neighbourhoods of Al-Amiriya and Al-Jamia'a speak of how extremist groups have killed gays in the street and also targeted their relatives.
Outrage! reports of cases where members of a family have been killed for refusing to hand over a gay male relative to the militia.
From his house in the western neighbourhood of Al-Jamia’a, Mukhtar Salah, 40, a former member of Saddam's security forces, said he witnessed gunmen kill a young man, who he later heard is alleged to have had an affair with an American soldier.
After killing him, the militants ordered people to go home and threatened to behead anyone who tried to claim the body. "[It] was left in the street for two days," said Salah, until eventually it was picked up by a National Guard patrol.
In Saddam's time, you risked being imprisoned for being gay - but homosexual practices were nonetheless common in religious neighbourhoods where young unmarried men would not dare to have any contact with women.
Nail Mohammed, 25, considers his being gay just one risk among many others. In the Al-Fadhil neighbourhood where he lives, extremist Islamic groups kill gay men, but also people who wear jeans or drink alcohol. In the past six months, he said three of his closest friends have been killed for drinking.
Bilal Arif, 40, a Baghdad lawyer, feels Iraqi society is going from bad to worse: open and secular from the 1950s to the 1970s, it turned into a military dictatorship under Saddam and is now moving towards religious extremism, he says.
Arif doubts that homosexuals are being systematically targeted. Rather, he suspects they are the victims of "the mess all over Iraq" which allows people to take the law into their own hands. "They are killed because there is no state to hold the murderers responsible or pursue them judicially," he said.
Paradoxically, those who kill gays believe they are acting within the law as the Sharia, which they adhere to, deems homosexuality a crime punishable by death.
In so-called religious courts, supervised by clerics, with no official authority, gays are tried, sentenced to death and then executed by militiamen.