As organized killings of Iraqi gays have escalated in recent months amid a homophobic campaign in that nation’s media, openly gay Democratic Congressman Jared Polis of Colorado has asked the US State Department to investigate. Polis, the first non-incumbent openly gay man ever elected to Congress, who returned from a visit to Iraq at the beginning of April, told Gay City News that while in Baghdad he had met with the chargé d’affaires, who is overseeing the US embassy pending the arrival of a new ambassador.
"We asked the embassy and the State Department to investigate the reports of killings of gay men, and turned over to the chargé d’affaires the names and phone numbers of all the gay Iraqi contacts we had and a letter detailing our concerns," including allegations that the Iraqi government is involved in the killings, Polis told this reporter, adding, "They seemed very willing to investigate."
If the State Department does undertake such an investigation, that would reflect a significant change in US policy by the Obama administration. In 2007, two openly gay members of Congress, Democrats Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, wrote a lengthy letter to Bush Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice detailing the anti-gay death squads’ murder campaign and asking the US to investigate and intervene. Their letter, which cited extensive reporting in Gay City News on repression of gays in Iraq, had no effect.
Polis, a millionaire Internet entrepreneur and philanthropist, traveled to Iraq at his own expense before his election last year and attempted to investigate the ongoing campaign of "sexual cleansing" of Iraqi homosexuals, and on his return contributed $10,000 to the London-based all-volunteer association Iraqi LGBT, which has a network of members and correspondents throughout Iraq that has been tracking the organized campaign of assassinations of Iraqi gays.
Ali Hili, the coordinator of Iraqi LGBT, who briefed Polis by telephone for his Iraqi trip, told Gay City News from London that "we have been able to confirm 63 more murders of gay people in Iraq just since December," bringing to nearly 600 the number of cases of LGBT Iraqis killed for their sexuality that his group has documented since the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of all Iraqi Shiite Muslims, issued a death-to-all-gays fatwa in 2005. But, Hili added, "Since there are parts of Iraq where we have no correspondents or members, we are convinced that the actual number of gays killed in these last months since December is much higher." At the same time, the BBC reported last week that according to Amnesty International "in the last few weeks 25 boys and men are reported to have been killed in Baghdad because they were, or perceived to be, gay." In an unusual move, Amnesty International wrote to the Iraqi President, Nouri al-Maliki, demanding "urgent and concerted action" by his government to stop the killings.
Hili told this reporter, "There is an intensive media campaign against homosexuals in Iraq at this time which we believe is inspired by the Ministry of the Interior, both in the daily newspapers and on nearly all the television stations. Their reports brand all gays as ‘perverts’ and try to portray us as terrorists who are undermining the moral fiber of Iraqi youth." Hili said the current homo-hating media campaign appears to have been sparked as an unfortunate reaction to an April 4 Reuters dispatch that reported: "Two gay men were killed in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum, a local official said, and police said they had found the bodies of four more after clerics urged a crackdown on a perceived spread of homosexuality… The police source said the bodies of four gay men were unearthed in Sadr City on March 25, each bearing a sign reading ‘pervert’ in Arabic on their chests."
"After the Reuters dispatch, the Iraqi media spoke about the murders of gays for the very first time," Hili said, "but unfortunately in such hate-filled and incendiary terms that their reports and commentaries only encouraged further violence." On April 8, the New York Times published a story, headlined "Iraq’s Newly Open Gays Face Scorn and Murder," in which it recognized for the first time the existence of anti-gay death squads, which Gay City News first reported three years ago (see this reporter’s March 23-29, 2006 article, "Shia Death Squads Target Iraqi Gays"). "Gay men and lesbians have long been among the targets of both Shiite and Sunni death squads" in Iraq, the Times reported.
Unfortunately, the Times article omitted any mention of the anti-gay death squads of the Badr Corps, the military arm of the former Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which in 2007 changed its name to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq when it entered the coalition government as its largest Islamist party, and which acknowledges Sistani as its supreme leader and spiritual guide. The estimated 11,000 members of the Badr Corps militia, which has been responsible for a large majority of the murders of gays since Sistani’s fatwa calling for such killings, was integrated into the Ministry of the Interior in 2006, and since then its Badr anti-gay death squads have operated in police uniforms with complete impunity, as Gay City News has previously reported on many occasions.
Iraqi LGBT activists in Iraq have been the victims of Badr Corps members operating in police uniforms, including five key gay activists arrested in a police raid on a secret organizing meeting in 2006; no word of them has since surfaced, and they are presumed to have been killed (see this reporter’s December 7-12, 2006 article, "Iraqi Gay Activists Abducted"). There have been 17 Iraqi LGBT activists killed since the Ayatollah Sistani’s 2005 fatwa, including Hili’s own brother.
Hili said the Times article also gave a somewhat misleading impression about the degree to which Iraqi gays are able to be open. Iraqi LGBT had maintained a network of four safe houses in Baghdad for queers targeted by the anti-gay death squads. But now, Hili told Gay City News, "We have had to close three of them out of fear. The guys we were trying to protect in those safe houses became so afraid in the current climate of vicious anti-gay crusading by the media and the clerics, and following the latest assassinations of gays, that they were afraid to continue living collectively, that this made them easy targets. So they simply left our safe houses. We have now only one safe house left." Hili also said that he had received reports from Iraq of five gay men, all Iraqi LGBT members, who are in prison awaiting execution. Hili said "We have been told they are expecting to be executed in two weeks."
Hili said it is unclear on what precise charges the gay men will be executed. "One of our informants who was in detention with these five guys and then was released told me by phone how these men told him that their trial was a lightening-quick kangaroo court. It was an incredibly brief trial, and these five members of ours weren’t able to obtain legal representation or defend themselves in that kind of context." Hili said that according to this account, the five members of his group "thought they were being accused of being a part of a ‘terrorist organization,’ meaning Iraqi LGBT," Hili recounted. The five were found by police in possession of literature from his group. Hili has spoken with both Amnesty International and with Human Rights Watch about the case of his five members awaiting execution.
Dalia Hashad of Amnesty International told Gay City News, "Amnesty has been unable to get from the Iraqi government any confirmation that the men are in custody or that they are facing execution, but from what we have heard from individuals in Iraq, they were sentenced to die for belonging to a ‘banned group.’ We are protesting to the Iraqi government and are continuing to try to investigate, but it is very difficult to get any information about such prisoners in Iraq." Scott Long, director of Human Rights Watch’s LGBT desk, told Rex Wockner’s gay news service, "Together with other groups, members of Congress and concerned activists, we’re doing everything we can to investigate and determine who’s jailed and what their fates may be. The Iraqi government and the US government must both investigate these charges immediately." Long is traveling to Iraq to pursue an HRW investigation.
Polis is also trying to ascertain the status of the five imprisoned Iraqi LGBT members, but a statement given by a State Department spokesman to Edge.boston.com, a gay news website, raises concerns that the US may not yet be taking the charges seriously, despite the congressman’s recent visit. The site quoted John Fleming, public affairs officer for the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, as pooh-poohing the notion that the five gay men facing execution were being targeted for belonging to Iraqi LGBT, saying that homosexuality "is immaterial to Iraqis." Fleming, according to Edge, stated, "Frankly, there are other issues they are concerned about like basic survival, getting food and water. It’s a luxury for the average Iraqi to worry about homosexuality." This statement by Fleming, who served a year in Iraq under the Bush administration, is, of course, contradicted by the recent media reports this month by such diverse sources as the Times, Reuters, CNN, and the British dailies The Independent and The Guardian, confirming Gay City News’ three years of reporting.
This State Department staffer’s statement suggests rather strongly the urgent need to keep up the pressure on the Obama administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to thoroughly investigate the dangers facing gay Iraqis and act decisively to save those threatened with death.
Iraqi LGBT is desperately in need of contributions to finance its work in Iraq. Donations may be made on credit cards through PayPal on the group’s web site at http://iraqilgbtuk.blogspot.com/. Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/direland/.
Doug Ireland, a longtime radical journalist and media critic, runs the blog DIRELAND.