In the latest protest aimed at preventing the UK from deporting 19-year-old Iranian Mehdi Kazemi to his homeland where he faces probable execution, 150 demonstrators braved hail, snow, and rain in London on Saturday, March 22, to rally outside 10 Downing Street, the official residence of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Protesters demanded that Brown’s government refrain from efforts to deport any gay and lesbian Iranians.
For the moment, at least, the Brown government has put its original deportation plans for Kazemi on hold, pending formal reconsideration.
The Kazemi case has attracted worldwide attention ever since the UK Home Office ordered him to be deported last year after his student visa expired. While in Britain, where he had been a student since 2005, Kazemi learned that his longtime boyfriend, Parham, who was the same age as him, had been arrested, tortured, and executed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. In a lengthy e-mail to the Iranian Queer Organization describing his plight, Kazemi wrote, "If I return to Iran I will be arrested and executed like Parham." (For background on the Kazemi case, read this reporter’s February 28-March 5, 2008 article, " Another Iranian Tragedy".)
After losing an internal Home Office appeal against his deportation, Kazemi fled the UK, first to the Czech Republic and then to Germany, before finally arriving, after weeks of peregrinations, in the Netherlands, where he was detained as an "illegal immigrant." A Dutch court on March 3 ordered Kazemi returned to the UK, citing the European Union’s Dublin Regulation, under which asylum applications must be processed in the first EU country in which the petitioner made an official claim for legal recognition as a refugee.
A worldwide campaign to save Kazemi from deportation to Iran was spearheaded by the Italian human rights group Gruppo EveryOne, which also launched an online petition campaign on Kazemi’s behalf and mobilized other Italian human rights groups and the country’s Radical Party to lobby the European Parliament to take action. In the UK, the militant gay rights group OutRage! and a newly-formed committee called Gay Asylum led the fight on Kazemi’s behalf. None of the US gay rights groups, including the New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, made any public statement about Kazemi’s life-or-death struggle for freedom.
TV networks CNN, ABC in Australia, the BBC and Sky News in the UK, and Italy’s RAI have all carried stories on Kazemi, as have major newspapers, including the Independent, the Guardian, and the Times in the UK, Corriere della Sera and La Republicca in Italy, and El Pais in Spain.
On March 14, the European Parliament overwhelmingly approved a resolution on the Kazemi case that had been introduced with the support of 142 of its members and 62 members of the British House of Lords. The EuroParliament resolution pointed out that the Iranian authorities "routinely detain, torture, and execute persons, notably homosexuals" and that "Mehdi’s partner has already been executed, while his [own] father has threatened him with death."
The resolution added that "the EU and its Member States cannot apply European and national laws and procedures in a way which results in the expulsion of persons to a third country where they would risk persecution, torture, and death, as this would amount to a violation of European and international human rights obligations." The EuroParliament stressed that the EU directive regarding criteria for refugee status "recognises persecution for sexual orientation as a ground for granting asylum."
The resolution "appeals to the Member States involved to find a common solution to ensure that Mehdi Kazemi is granted asylum or protection on EU soil and not sent back to Iran." More broadly, it argued that "more attention should be devoted to the proper application of EU asylum law in Member States as regards sexual orientation."
The resolution invoked the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits the removal of persons to countries where there is a serious risk that they would face the death penalty, torture, or other inhuman treatment, as well as the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Geneva Convention.
Within hours of the passage of the EuroParliament’s resolution, British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith issued a brief statement granting Kazemi a temporary stay of his deportation.
"Following representations made on behalf of Mehdi Kazemi, and in light of new circumstances since the original decision was made, I have decided that Mr. Kazemi’s case should be reconsidered on his return to the UK from the Netherlands," Smith said.
Openly gay British MP Simon Hughes of the Liberal Democratic Party, who had campaigned on Kazemi’s behalf, told the UK’s Pink News, "I hope Mr. Kazemi will now come back to Britain [from the Netherlands] where arrangements are already in place for an urgent meeting with him, his family, specialist lawyers, and myself to prepare a new application to the Home Office."
Hughes added, "It is becoming more and more clear that sending gay people back to Iran under the present regime is completely unacceptable."
But it is not only young Kazemi who remains at risk for deportation to Iran. Another 12 gay and lesbian Iranians living in the UK also risk being sent back into the hands of the theocratic Tehran regime.
Prominent among them is 40-year-old lesbian Pegah Emambakhsh, who became a refugee in the UK in 2005 after her partner in Iran was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to death by stoning. Her request for asylum was refused, and in August 2007 she was arrested in Sheffield and imprisoned to await deportation. But after a worldwide campaign on her behalf, she was released on September 11 last year while her appeal of the deportation order remains pending.
However, the Independent reported on March 7, Emambakhsh has lost her latest appeal.
"Ms Emambakhsh narrowly avoided deportation in August last year but only after her local MP, Richard Caborn, and other parliamentarians persuaded the Government to allow her to stay while further legal avenues of appeal were explored," the British newspaper reported. "She says she was already on the way to Heathrow [Airport] when she learnt of her last-minute reprieve. But last month the Court of Appeal turned down her application for permission for a full hearing. Ms Emambakhsh said yesterday that she was ‘very disappointed’ by the ruling but planned to apply for a judicial review at the High Court. The Home Office has also agreed to consider fresh legal representations on her behalf."
The UK was embarrassed when Emambakhsh was offered asylum by the center-left government of Italy’s Premier Romero Prodi, an implicit criticism of the British plan to deport her to Iran. Prodi acted after Gruppo EveryOne mobilized pressure.
Emambakhsh told the Independent, "I will never, never go back. If I do I know I will die."
As the Independent noted in a March 6 article on the Kazemi case by the newspaper’s law editor, "The Home Office’s own guidance issued to immigration officers concedes that Iran executes homosexual men but, unaccountably, rejects the claim that there is a systematic repression of gay men and lesbians."
At Saturday’s Downing Street demonstration, OutRage! leader Peter Tatchell denounced Brown’s Labour government for "failing LGBT refugees."
"Asylum staff and adjudicators receive race and gender awareness training but no training at all on sexual orientation issues," he pointed out. "As a result, they often make stereotyped assumptions – that a feminine woman can’t be a lesbian or that a masculine man cannot be gay. They sometimes rule that someone who has been married must be faking their homosexuality.
Tatchell went on to say, "The government refuses to explicitly rule that homophobic and transphobic persecution are legitimate grounds for granting asylum. This signals to asylum staff and judges that claims by LGBTI people are not as worthy as those based on persecution because of a person’s ethnicity, gender, politics, or faith."
Moreover, Tatchell noted, "The Home Office country reports on homophobic and transphobic persecution are often partial, inaccurate, and misleading. They consistently downplay the severity of victimization suffered by LGBT people in violently homophobic countries like Iran, Nigeria, Iraq, Uganda, Palestine, Algeria, and Jamaica.
And, he said, "Cuts in the funding of legal aid for asylum claims means that most asylum applicants – gay and straight – are unable to prepare an adequate submission at their asylum hearing. Most solicitors don’t get paid enough to procure the necessary witness statements, medical reports, and other vital corroborative evidence."
It’s clear that Kazemi, Emambakhsh, and the other Iranian LGBT refugees seeking asylum in the UK still have a difficult road ahead of them.
The online petition for Mehdi Kazemi, which can be signed at the bottom, is at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/UKMADHI/. The Iranian Queer Organization’s website is www.irqo.net. OutRage! leader Peter Tatchell’s website is http://www.petertatchell.net/. The website for Italy’s Gruppo EveryOne is http://everyonegroup.com. Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/direland/.