Human Rights Watch Scorches Iran Over Anti-Gay Violence

BY DOUG IRELAND | The Islamic Republic of Iran’s vicious campaign to eradicate homosexuality and render its homosexuals invisible has received a major blow with a new report from the world’s most prestigious human rights organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The 104-page report, entitled “‘We Are a Buried Generation’: Discrimination and Violence against Sexual Minorities in Iran,” was issued December 15 by HRW, which has its headquarters in New York and operates on an annual budget of some $45 million with a staff of 275 working in 40 countries.

The report, based on 125 interviews, notes that Iran “bans same-sex conduct regardless of whether it is consensual in nature. The very real threat of prosecution and the serious punishment that awaits those convicted of same-sex crimes constitute discrimination against members of Iran’s LGBT minority whose consensual sexual practices are criminalized under any and all circumstances.

“For example, Iranian law prohibits sodomy, defined to include both consensual and coerced sexual intercourse between two men. The punishment for same-sex intercourse between two men (lavat) is death and for sexual relations between two women (mosaheqeh) is 100 lashes for the first three offenses and the death penalty for the fourth. Evidence indicates that the punishment has been enforced — the threat of execution is real for Iran’s vulnerable LGBT community.”

Iran is one of only seven countries worldwide that retains the death penalty for consensual same-sex acts (the others are Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, and some parts of Somalia and Nigeria).

Many supposedly gay-friendly governments, like the UK and Sweden, as well as some immigration judges in the US, have refused asylum demands from queer Iranians on the grounds that they would be in no danger if they are “discreet” on being returned to Iran. But the report finds that danger of official persecution, including torture and imprisonment, is so dire for Iranian same-sexers that HRW demands other governments” prohibit refoulement [forcible return] (actual or threatened) of LGBT refugees or asylum seekers to Iran based on the notion that there is no systematic persecution of sexual minorities in Iran, or that LGBT persons can live comfortably in Iran as long as they conceal their sexual orientation or identity.”

The report finds that torture and other forms of coercion are regularly used by the government to extract so-called “confessions” — not only to sexual crimes, but to other crimes as well — from those suspected of engaging in same-sex conduct. The HRW report underscores how “Iran’s sexual minorities are also affected by criminal laws that do not specifically address same-sex conduct, but are applied to individuals who do not conform to socially acceptable norms on gender and morality. In fact, sexual minorities targeted by security forces in both public and private spaces often face charges related to offenses against public morals or chastity instead of sexual crimes.” Same-sexers are “disproportionately” charged with such crimes, according to the report.

Morover, HRW “uncovered evidence suggesting that prosecutors will charge human rights defenders working on issues affecting sexual minorities, or anyone seen by the government as publicizing or promoting LGBT culture, with violating national security laws. These crimes may include ‘propaganda against the regime,’ ‘disturbing the public order,” ‘participation in an illegal gathering,’ and ‘propaganda against the system.’ These individuals may also be subject to two other hadd crimes (crimes against God): moharebeh , or ‘enmity against God,’ and efsad-e fel arz, or ‘sowing corruption on earth.’ Both these crimes are punishable by death.”

Publication of the HRW report on persecution of Iranian queers had been promised by the organization’s former director of LGBT affairs, Scott Long, as long as four years ago, during his five-year long campaign of attacks on the UK’s iconic gay and human rights activist, Peter Tatchell, who had spearheaded global protests against the 2005 execution of two presumably gay Iranian teenagers on concocted charges of “rape.”

But in July of last year, HRW made a stunning public apology to Tatchell for attacks heaped on him by Long, mostly over Iran. Long made numerous public statements about Tatchell that were “inappropriate… disparaging… inaccurate… condemnatory… intemperate personal attacks,” HRW acknowledged. The HRW apology included an admission from Long that he’d made false statements about Tatchell, and shortly after it was issued Long resigned from HRW. (For a full account of this episode, see this reporter’s July 14, 2010 article, “An Overdue Apology”).

Now, Tatchell has hailed HRW for its new report on Iran. He told Gay City News by email that he considered it “a vindication of Iranian LGBT campaigners, and all of us around the world, who have criticised the frequent unfair trials of Iranians accused of sodomy. It also corroborates our anxiety that some people executed for homosexuality may not have been gay and that some of those executed for rape may have been engaged in consenting same-sex relations.”

Indeed the new HRW report specifically states, “Because trials on moral charges in Iran are usually held in camera” — that is, outside of the public eye — it is difficult to determine what proportion of those charged and executed for same-sex conduct are LGBT and in what proportion the alleged offense was consensual. Because of the lack of transparency, Human Rights Watch said, it cannot be ruled out that Iran is sentencing sexual minorities who engage in consensual same-sex relations to death under the guise that they have committed forcible sodomy or rape.

The report also documents “serious abuses, including due-process violations that occurred during the prosecution of sexual minorities charged with crimes. Those charged with engaging in consensual same-sex offenses stand little chance of receiving a fair trial. Judges ignore penal code evidentiary guidelines in sodomy cases and often rely instead on confessions extracted through physical torture and extreme psychological pressure.”

Referring back to the position he consistently took in his long-running battle with Long, Tatchell said, “According to HRW, our doubts and skepticism are justified. The report offers an implicit rebuke to apologists for the Tehran dictatorship who uncritically accepted official Iranian court and media reports that young men executed for sodomy were invariably kidnappers and rapists. It offers strong evidence of the widespread, systematic persecution of LGBT Iranians. Congratulations to HRW for this comprehensive, ground-breaking research in defense of our LGBT brothers and sisters in Iran.”

Others, while also welcoming the report, offered criticism of its carefully modulated tone and of certain omissions.

Dan Littauer, executive editor of the London-based grassroots media and advocacy site, which has correspondents in most Arab and Middle Eastern countries, told Gay City News, “The HRW report is welcomed, much needed, and ground-breaking. It is unprecedented in its scope and importance, highlighting the plight of LGBT Iranians. It explored well the social and legal situation for LGBT Iranians.”

However, Littauer added, “Much more attention should have been paid to the immense amount of the so-called honor killings of LGBT Iranians, an issue that was hardly covered by the report. From our sources, it seems that the majority of abuse, harm, and death is derived from such practices, while the state-sanctioned violence is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Explaining the context out of which such murders arise, Littauer said, “Even if no honor killings occur, many LGBT people remain virtually imprisoned by their families. Even if they manage to leave their family and live independently (usually only gay men have that option), they always are under threat of being discovered and need to hide, lie, and be constantly on their guard. In order to escape such difficulties, some gay men marry women and lead a difficult life ridden with guilt, which also leads many to suicide.

“For lesbians the situation is even more complicated, as they are completely forced to be dependent on male authority, be it of their father or forced-choice husband. Many LGBT people in Iran are thus killed by their own families or driven to suicide; life remains intolerable for those who try and survive.”

Finally, Littauer questioned the language HRW employed in its reporting on sex-reassignment surgery, which he said is forced on some gay men and lesbians to avoid persecution.

“The gender reassignment operations ‘offered’ by the Iranian authorities may be a choice to some who genuinely want gender reassignment, but to most this is a horrible choice — either one undergoes the operation (against his/ her will) or face state violence or attempt at exile,” Littauer said. “Such a choice is no ‘choice’ at all — rather it is a mere extension of the violent heterosexist ideology of forcing sexual orientation into the binary advocated by Iranian authorities’ rigid version of Shari’a law.”

Or, as the title of a documentary by France 2 public television on Iranians forced into sex-change surgery put it, “Change Sex or Die.”

Littauer also underscored how “further research and documentation is also urgently needed on how the Basiji [the parapolice which enforce morality laws and operate under the orders of the state security apparatus] and Sepha [Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has direct ties to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] entrap, blackmail, sexually molest, and exploit Iran’s sexual minorities. In effect, the Iranian state is now making citizens and militias be the hand of law and do its dirty work, and this is much more difficult to research and document.”

Noted Iranian scholar-in-exile Professor Janet Afary, a former president of the International Society of Iranian Scholars who teaches Iranian history and gender studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, also acknowledged the overly cautious tone of the HRW report. Afary — whose most recent book, the 2007 “Sexual Politics in Modern Iran” (see this reporter’s February 20, 2009 review, “Iran’s Hidden History”) documents the 1,000-year recorded history of homosexuality in that country — told Gay City News that the HRW report “reminded me of an academic paper, with a lot of qualifiers.”

But, Afary noted, “all in all, for an official published document, it’s still one of the best I’ve seen.” She said the HRW report “will have an impact on diaspora Iranians,” among whom homophobia is nearly as widespread as it is in Iran, even among the educated.

“There have been half a dozen new books on human rights in Iran, and not one even mentions persecution of gays or gay rights. We need more reports like HRW’s and need to publicize them among diaspora Iranians,” Afary said.

The complete text of the HRW report “‘We Are a Buried Generation’: Discrimination and Violence against Sexual Minorities in Iran,” is available online at The website Gay Middle East is at Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at