After an international outpouring of anger from gay organizations at the news that the Iranian government had executed two young men because they were homosexual, human rights groups are saying that while they strongly object to executing minors the two men may have committed a crime. “So far the only thing that we have been able to corroborate is that they were convicted of sexual assault on a 13-year-old boy,” said Ariel Herrera, acting director of Outfront, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Human Rights Program at Amnesty International, in a July 26 interview. “We couldn’t corroborate the charge of homosexuality at this point.”
Ayaz Marhoni, 18, and Mahmoud Asgari, whose age is given as 16 or 17 in press reports, were hanged on July 19 in Mashhad, a city in northeast Iran. Initially, gay groups charged that the public executions resulted from the two boys having been caught having sex with each other.
Among gay groups, Outrage!, a British organization, first broke the news of the hanging in a July 21 press release. It cited three Iranian sources—the Iranian Students News Agency, Iran In Focus and the National Council of Resistance of Iran — in reporting the story.
Human rights groups denounce punishment as anti-gay, barbaric
“This is just the latest barbarity by the Islamo-fascists in Iran,” said Peter Tatchell, an OutRage! member in the press statement. “The entire country is a gigantic prison, with Islamic rule sustained by detention without trial, torture and state-sanctioned murder…According to Iranian human rights campaigners, over 4,000 lesbians and gay men have been executed since the Ayatollahs seized power in 1979.”
In a July 25 IRIN news agency story, Kursad Kahramananoglu, head of the International Lesbian and Gay Association, said “It’s entirely unacceptable that people are actually killed because of their sexuality.”
Kahramananoglu said that if it was confirmed that the boys were hanged because they were gay, ILGA, a federation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups from around the world, would complain to the United Nations.
Chilling photos of the young men’s hangings accompanied the press statements and reports. Marhoni and Asgari had been imprisoned for roughly 14 months and they had each been flogged 228 times. Both were minors when they committed the alleged crime.
In the U.S., the Human Rights Campaign, the gay lobby on Capitol Hill, wrote to Condoleeza Rice, the secretary of state, and demanded she speak out.
“This crime warrants an immediate and strong condemnation from the Department of State,” HRC wrote on July 22. “This week, two Iranian teenagers were hanged in a public square after being tortured for 14 months, simply for being caught having consensual sex…Atrocities committed by foreign governments against all people must be condemned swiftly and forcefully by the world’s greatest democracy. We urge you to do so.”
By July 25, that letter was no longer on HRC’s Web site, though a spokesperson said they would be placing it back on the site, and human rights groups were throwing some cold water on the heated charges.
In an unsolicited e-mail sent to Gay City News, Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Project at Human Rights Watch, wrote, “We’ve done pretty extensive research and it is reasonably certain they were executed for sexual assault on a 13-year-old. That still leaves plenty of room for addressing the human rights issues involved, particularly the execution and torture of people for crimes committed while children, but I am concerned with the unreflective way the firestorm over this issue is playing out as a ‘gay rights’ case.”
In a July 27 press statement, Outrage! said the rape allegation may be false and noted that it did not appear in two of the three original reports it cited in its first press release.
“The allegation of rape may be a trumped-up charge to undermine public sympathy for the youths,” said Brett Lock, an Outrage! member, in the July 27 statement.
International human rights groups are rigorous about documenting any charges they make and guard their reputations carefully, a point made by Paula L. Ettelbrick, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, on July 26.
“Our policy is to make sure that our facts are as accurate and as documented as possible,” she said. “What seems clear from Amnesty’s statement is that there is no evidence at this time that this execution was the result of homosexual behavior.” Ettelbrick added that the hangings occurred because of convictions in the “group rape of a 13-year-old boy where these two alleged perpetrators were of minority age at the time of the incident.”
Outrage! reported on July 27 that the Iranian government was looking for “three other young gay Iranians,” who were accomplices “in connection with the same so-called crime.”
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, which oppose oppose the death penalty, are objecting strongly to applying the death penalty to children who commit crimes.
“It is nonetheless a horrendous incident,” Ettelbrick said. “Imposing the death penalty on juveniles is clearly a violation of human rights. Also for governments to use public execution is per se a violation of human rights.”
Amnesty’s Herrera said that Iran is a signatory to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which bans executing minors.
“The fact that Iran has executed juveniles means they are in violation of international norms and Amnesty condemns the death penalty,” he said.
Amnesty has documented that Iran has executed 12 child offenders since 1990 and, at least, 30 others are awaiting execution. The agency has documented that Iran does execute men for having homosexual sex.
“We have previous cases that we have worked on and documented over the years of gay men being executed for homosexual conduct,” Herrera said. “Iran is one of the few countries in the world today that imposes the death penalty for consensual same-sex sexual conduct.”
The U.S. government is remaining largely silent on the killings though the state department quickly responded to inquiries from two Gay City News reporters.
Noel Clay, a state department spokesperson, said, “The department doesn’t comment on many things that happen in the world” when asked why the agency had not issued a statement. He added that this does not mean that Iran was in any way justified in its actions.
“We have gone on the record before regarding Iran’s human right’s abuses,” Clay said. “The secretary herself has called their human rights record abysmal. Our stance regarding Iran is no secret.”
Congressman Jerrold Nadler, a New York City Democrat, characterized the executions as “uncivilized” and said they were the “result of religious prejudice and hatred.”
Stefen Styrsky contributed reporting to this article.