Homosexuals across the capital are being hunted down and murdered byIslamic militants and even the police.
Wednesday, November 01, 2006Basim al-Shara'a
Faris Thamir carefully watches the street in his Al-Batawinneighbourhood, afraid the police or militia men might try to kill him.
In Iraq, where religious radicals consider homosexuality a sinpunishable by death, gays have good reason to worry about being"outed".
Thamir, 35, is wary of the extremist Islamic groups that prowl thestreets of the capital - but neither does he trust the police who aresupposedly there to protect him.
Thamir and other gay men complain about frequent mistreatment bypolice, accusing them of blackmail, torture, sexual abuse and theft."Policemen raped me several times at gunpoint and threatened to handme over to extremist groups if I refuse," said Thamir.
Concern about the involvement of policemen in criminal acts have alsobeen raised by western officials and Sunni Arab leaders who say theShia-controlled interior ministry has been infiltrated by Shiamilitias, like the Badr Brigades, who allegedly use their uniforms ascover to kidnap, torture and murder.
Earlier this month, the head of 8th National Police Brigade, one ofBaghdad's frontline police units, was detained on suspicion ofinvolvement with sectarian death squads. Several thousand policemenhave been dismissed and face prosecution for criminal acts.
Thamir does not count on any official help anymore. After spending amonth in prison - during which he said he was tortured and beaten -police continued to pursue him. So he hid at a friend's house - andonly dares to go out twice a month, disguised as a woman.
For him, the Saddam era seems like a "golden" time becausehomosexuality was discreetly tolerated. "Now I am desperate because Iexpect either to be shot or beheaded at any moment," he said.
The legal situation for gays in Iraq today remains vague. According toresearch by Sِdertِrn University in Stockholm, it is unclear to datewhether a new law on the family, approved by the Interim GoverningCouncil in December 2003, prohibits homosexual activities.
Under Islamic law, homosexual practise is a crime that carries thedeath sentence. Article two of the Iraqi constitution approved byreferendum in December 2005 refers to Islam as being "the officialreligion of the state and a basic source of legislation" . But theextent to which state laws upholds Sharia is still under dispute.
Meanwhile, the witch-hunt against the country's gays has apparentlyreceived a blessing from one of the highest religious authorities inIraq, Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
According to the London-based gay human rights group OutRage!, awebsite linked to Sistani in the Iranian city of Qom posted a fatwaagainst gays in October 2005. "The people involved [in homosexuality]should be killed in the worst, most severe way," it said. Although thetext was removed from the website in May 2006, the fatwa has not beenofficially revoked.
Inhabitants of the Baghdadi neighbourhoods of Al-Amiriya andAl-Jamia'a speak of how extremist groups have killed gays in thestreet and also targeted their relatives.
Outrage! reports of cases where members of a family have been killedfor refusing to hand over a gay male relative to the militia.
From his house in the western neighbourhood of Al-Jamia'a, MukhtarSalah, 40, a former member of Saddam's security forces, said hewitnessed gunmen kill a young man, who he later heard is alleged tohave had an affair with an American soldier.
After killing him, the militants ordered people to go home andthreatened to behead anyone who tried to claim the body. "[It] wasleft in the street for two days," said Salah, until eventually it waspicked up by a National Guard patrol.
In Saddam's time, you risked being imprisoned for being gay - buthomosexual practices were nonetheless common in religiousneighbourhoods where young unmarried men would not dare to have anycontact with women.
Nail Mohammed, 25, considers his being gay just one risk among manyothers. In the Al-Fadhil neighbourhood where he lives, extremistIslamic groups kill gay men, but also people who wear jeans or drinkalcohol. In the past six months, he said three of his closest friendshave been killed for drinking.
Bilal Arif, 40, a Baghdad lawyer, feels Iraqi society is going frombad to worse: open and secular from the 1950s to the 1970s, it turnedinto a military dictatorship under Saddam and is now moving towardsreligious 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 arekilled because there is no state to hold the murderers responsible orpursue them judicially," he said.
Paradoxically, those who kill gays believe they are acting within thelaw as the Sharia, which they adhere to, deems homosexuality a crimepunishable by death.
In so-called religious courts, supervised by clerics, with no officialauthority, gays are tried, sentenced to death and then executed bymilitiamen.
Such courts were first established by Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, fatherof Muqtada al-Sadr, in 1999 in secret to adjudicate on Islamic issues.Now they are present in many predominantly Shia towns like Ammara,Basra, Ramadi and in several Shia neighbourhoods in Baghdad such asShu´la, Hurria and Sadr City.
Due to the absence of the state in large areas of the country, theseillegitimate courts have gained more and more popular support.
The trials, presided over by young inexperienced clerics, are held inHusseiniyas (Shia mosques), offices of the Sadr movement or,particularly in Shu'la and Sadr City, in ordinary halls. Gays andrapists face anything from 40 lashes to the death penalty.
Mohammed al-Saidi, one of the self-appointed judges in Sadr City,believes that homosexuality is on the wane in Iraq. "Most [gays] havebeen killed and others have fled," he said. Indeed, the number who'vesought asylum in the UK has risen noticeably over the last few months.
Saidi insists the religious courts have a lot to be proud of, "We nowrepresent a society that asked us to protect it not only from thievesand terrorists but also from these [bad] deeds."
Basim al-Shara'a is an IWPR contributor in Baghdad.
(The names of people featured in this piece have been changed forsecurity reasons)
Copyright (c) 2006 Spero