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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

USA TODAY - Militias target some Iraqis for being gay

By Paul Wiseman and Nadeem Majeed, USA TODAY

BAGHDAD — The young man turns to the camera and pleads with his tormentors.
"I'm not a terrorist," he tells the Iraqi police who surround him. "I want you to know I am different. But I am not a terrorist."

To some fundamentalist Iraqi Muslims, Ahmed Sadoun Saleh was worse than a terrorist.
He was gay. He wore his hair long and took female hormones to grow breasts. Amused by his appearance, Iraqi police officers stopped him in December at a checkpoint in a southern Baghdad neighborhood dominated by radical Shiite militias. They groped Saleh and ridiculed him.

The assault was captured on video and circulated on cellphones throughout Baghdad, says Ali Hili, founder of London-based Iraqi LGBT, a group dedicated to protecting Iraq's gays and lesbians. Shortly after the video was made public, Hili says Saleh contacted him, fearing for his life, and asked for his help to flee Iraq.

"Unfortunately, it was too late," Hili says. Saleh turned up dead two months later, he says.
At least 82 gay men have been killed in Iraq since December, according to Iraqi LGBT. The violence has raised questions about the Iraqi government's ability to protect a diverse range of vulnerable minority groups that also includes Christians and Kurds, especially following the

withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities last month.

Mithal al-Alusi, a secular, liberal Sunni legislator, is among those who blame the killings on armed militant groups such as al-Qaeda and the Mahdi Army militia.

By targeting one of the most vulnerable groups in a conservative Muslim society — people whose sexual orientation is banned by Iraqi law — the militias essentially are serving notice that they remain powerful despite the U.S. and Iraqi militaries' efforts to curtail them, al-Alusi says.
The militants "want to educate the society to accept killers on the street," al-Alusi says in an interview. "Why did Hitler start with gays? They are weak. They have no political cover. They have no legal cover."

The attacks have terrified a gay community that, for a brief time after the U.S. troop surge in 2007-08, tentatively enjoyed greater freedom and security.

"I am worried about my life," says a middle-age gay man in Baghdad who asked to be identified by the pseudonym Hassan. He declined to be identified by his real name because the recent violence has made him fear for his life. "I don't know what to do," he says.

Hili and other gay rights activists believe the killers operate with the complicity and sometimes the direct involvement of Iraqi security forces.

As part of a drive to stop the sectarian violence that peaked in Iraq in 2006-07, those forces have taken into their ranks numerous former militia members from the Mahdi Army (loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr) and the pro-Iranian Badr Brigade.

"The Ministry of Interior in Iraq is behind this campaign of terror," Hili says in an e-mail.He says witnesses have told him that police harass and beat suspected gays at checkpoints and sometimes turn them over to militias for execution.

Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf disputes such allegations. He says the ministry has assigned a special bureau to investigate the killings of gays; he says he knows of six gays who had been executed as of May.

Homosexuality, Khalaf says, is against the law and "is rejected by the customs of our society." He adds, however, that offenders should be handled by the courts, not dispatched by vigilante groups.

The killers aren't just executing their gay victims. They are "mutilating their bodies and torturing them," says fundamentalist Sunni cleric Sheik Mohammed al-Ghreri, who has criticized the violence.

Hili says the militias have come up with a particularly cruel way to inflict pain: sealing victims' anuses with glue, then force-feeding them laxatives. Hili says he has spoken to several victims who survived the ordeal.

'You can just be crushed'

Besides targeting gays, Sadr City militias also are harassing and sometimes killing straight young men who violate fundamentalist fashion and decorum by wearing low-riding pants and other Western-style clothing, slicking back their hair or making it spiky, hanging out in cafes or pool halls or flirting with girls, says human rights activist Mohammed Jasim, 28.

"The campaign is against gays and anybody who looks gay" in the eyes of militiamen indoctrinated to believe immodest dress is an affront to God, Jasim says.

"Young people felt their city had been liberated," says Jasim's friend Wisam Mizban, 32.
"They thought they could wear what they wanted. The militias felt threatened and started killing them. They are doing their crimes under the cover of the government. … Most young people want a civilized life. The militias and the government are putting pressure on them again."

The campaign has had a chilling effect on Baghdad's nightlife.

Entrepreneur Ali al-Ali opened the Shisha coffee shop in an upstairs storefront overlooking a bustling street in the upscale Karrada neighborhood. The place quickly became a hangout for young gay men, who'd sit and talk and drink lattes, and smoke flavored tobacco from the water pipes that gave the cafe its name.

But as the militias started killing gay men, Ali discouraged gays from congregating at his cafe. "If (militias) see gays coming here, maybe they will target me outside Karrada," al-Ali says.
His sentiments were echoed by Hussam Abdullah, whose tea shop also used to be a hangout for gay men — until militias warned Abdullah there would be trouble if he didn't send them away. So he did.

The militias usually send out warnings before they attack. Posters go up in Sadr City listing the offenders — gay and flashy straight men — by name and neighborhood. "If you don't give up what you are doing," said a recent one seen by a USA TODAY reporter, "death will be your fate. And this warning will come true, and the punishment will be worse and worse."

The poster referred to the offenders as "puppies," the fundamentalist epithet for gays here. "In Arabic culture, if you want to insult someone you call them a dog," human rights activist Yanar Mohammed says. "If you're a small dog, you can just be crushed."

Among those listed was a young man named Allawi Hawar, a local soccer star who incurred the wrath of the militias by wearing his hair long and partying with his friends in Sadr City cafes.
Hawar was playing pool one day last month when two masked men drove up on a motor scooter. One climbed off and made his way inside the cafe, clutching a pistol.

"We have something to deal with," he announced to startled patrons, according to witness Emad Saad, 25.

The gunman grabbed Hawar and dragged him outside. Then he shot the young athlete in the leg. After Hawar crumpled to the ground, bleeding, the gunman shot him again and killed him, Saad says.

The militiamen pick their targets by entering cafes and looking for men who appear feminine or too showy, Saad says. Then they ask around to get the offenders' names, and later put them on the death lists distributed around town.

Saad himself likes to wear Western jeans and slicked-back hair. He has taken to carrying a Glock pistol, awaiting his showdown with the militias.

"Some people are afraid, but I am not," he says. "I have done nothing wrong."
The Sadr City warning posters do not appear to be the work of educated theologians. A recent one was filled with Arabic misspellings, including a faulty rendering of "compassionate" — part of one of the 99 names for God.

But Ali Hili, the London activist, and others believe high-level clerics have ordered the killings. Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani several years ago decreed that the punishment for homosexuality is death "if it is proven before the religious judge."

An Iraqi TV channel, Alsumaria, reported that Sunni cleric al-Ghreri has called for the execution of gays. Al-Ghreri denies issuing such a statement, but concedes that some "stubborn" clerics might support the death penalty for gays.

He says homosexuality is "abnormal" and that gays should know that "freedom has limits." First, he says, gays should be warned to change their offensive behavior.
If that fails, he says, they should be jailed. If detentions don't work, they should endure 100 lashes for engaging in gay sex. And if four separate lashings fail and if witnesses testify against the suspects, he says, then they should be executed.

Exactly what unleashed the recent wave of violence is unclear.

Some — including Hassan, the middle-age gay man — trace the terror to a birthday party around New Year's at a cafe on Palestine Street in eastern Baghdad.

The party attracted about 20 gay men who cut loose on the dance floor, celebrating what they thought was their freedom in a more peaceful, stable Iraq. A video of the revelry was entitled Gay Scandal and distributed around the city.

"This was the start of it," Hassan says. "It made the ministry people crazy."
In London, activist Hili calls the party "a foolish action from members of our community who let their guard down."

However, he doesn't believe the party "was the spark that ignited all the flames."
Hili says the violence started earlier, with clerical fatwas against gays and police raids in December in Najaf, Karbala and Kut.

The search for safety

Unable to trust the authorities — and in some cases shunned by their own families — many Iraqi gays have gone into hiding. Hassan and some gay friends say they had found refuge in a house in Karrada. But as the threat against them increased, they became afraid the police would find them. So they scattered.

Hassan says he sometimes stays at home with his brothers — their parents are dead — but he's afraid even of them, afraid they will kill him because he has brought shame to the family.
He says he wanted to move in with his sister, who lives in Abu Dhabi. She turned him away, saying she didn't want her children to know they have a gay uncle.
Unwilling to trust the police, Iraqi LGBT has set up its own safe houses for gays in Iraq. The group has struggled to raise money and had to close three safe houses in the past couple of months, leaving just one open.

Hili says five safe houses are needed, each of them housing 10 to 12 gay refugees. Rent for a 2,150-square-foot safe house is usually $600 a month. Yet other expenses pile up: security guards, food, fuel, medical bills, pots and pans, bedding.

"We desperately need to add more because we have so many urgent cases," Hili says. "We receive requests for shelter every day, but are not able to help."

Things were better for gays, Hassan says, under the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein.
"In the Saddam era, it wasn't like this," he says. Saddam's security forces, offended by Hassan's openly gay lifestyle, once arrested him and hauled him to court. The judge let him go, ruling that he had done nothing wrong.

"Now, you don't know who to be afraid of," he says. "Forget about freedom or democracy. We just want our safety."

Monday, July 13, 2009

Gay Life After Saddam

Guardian review

What terrific reporting from Aasmah Mir in Gay Life After Saddam (BBC Radio 5 Live). It looked at the grim reality for gay, lesbian and transgender people living in Iraq, and the reasons for this savage new persecution. In a "liberated" country, this group finds itself yearning for the former regime. "We used to go every Thursday by the Tigris," said one man, his voice suffused with longing, "and we'd drink and swim. It was very relaxing."

Nobody in the programme sounded relaxed: Mir spoke to those in exile, in hiding, people who had been tortured or issued with death threats for helping others escape. Their stories ranged from sad to gruesome. We heard one Iraqi man tell how his boyfriend was abducted and murdered. "They had thrown his corpse in the garbage," he explained. "His genitals were cut off and a piece of his throat had been cut out." We heard, too, about the torture: rape, and also "glue in the anus and then force-feeding laxatives".

Some of those fleeing Iraq seek asylum in Britain and there were tales of seemingly harsh treatment by the authorities. Mir couldn't explore these, as both David Miliband and Phil Woolas refused interviews for this programme. Shame on them, you were left thinking.

Listen to the show (60')

Iraqi LGBT to apply for charitable status, provides interim accounts

Media release

For immediate use

Iraqi LGBT to apply for charitable status, provides interim accounts

10 July 2009

The Iraqi LGBT organisation has today provided interim accounts for its Syria operations (see below) and announced that it will resubmit an application for charitable status.

Based in the UK, the group works to aid lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people within Iraq as well as many who have fled for exile in nearby countries. It runs a 'safe house' in Baghdad, Iraq, where 20 LGBT people are currently housed and where previously 70 people have stayed for various periods.

The safe house will be featured in a documentary on BBC Radio this Sunday. It includes interviews with the person who runs it as well as some of those who live there.

Since it was founded Iraqi LGBT has provided safety for over 100 people, including supporting 70 people financially. It has provided support for 23 people outside Iraq including shelter, medication and food.

The reapplication for charitable status follows a change in the group's aims which removed working the requirement to work for change in Iraqi law, which resulted in a previous rejection by the UK's Charity Commission as this was regarded as 'political'. It also follows the work of the group's volunteer accountant on preparing accounts to meet charity commissioners’ standards. In addition the group has become a Company limited by guarantee (No. 06954355).

Iraqi LGBT’s accountant Josh Botham ATT ACPA ACCA IIT[dip] explained that - like others such as Amnesty International - the group has had to use circuitous routes in order to get funds to exiles, as well as pay bribes in order to secure release of people under real threat of death.

Botham said that as part of the application the group would publish full accounts on its website shortly.

Funding for the group in the past has come from the group's own members and donations including one in 2008 from the US Representative Jared Polis. He donated $10,000 (£6,853) via the Heartland Alliance to aid the project in Syria.

Polis' funding went to the Chicago based LGBT group Heartland Alliance to provide for five people to be moved from Iraq to Syria and to provide housing rent, food and other basic needs in Syria. This project ran between 1 June and 31 December 2008. Included in the cost was the living accommodation for the local administrator of the group.

Botham said that: "Providing the financial support involved a difficult money transfer process in order to avoid coming to the attention of Syrian authorities. Such an operation also meant that in order to safeguard the lives of these refugees, people were only informed on a need to know basis."

"Heartland Alliance [as grant provider] however insisted that our group should meet up with the Lebanese LGBT group, Helem, in November 2008, at that same time that some prominent members of Heartland Alliance visited Syria."

"The result was disastrous for our group, Iraqi LGBT. Some of our members were arrested by Syrian police in Damascas in (which city). With the help of a local lawyer, Iraqi LGBT managed to get these people released. However one of them was later to be deported back to Iraq."

Iraqi LGBT has experienced other difficulties in coordinating activities with Heartland Alliance. Another grant of $10,000 meant for Iraqi LGBT came to the group from the Elisabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trust, based in Chicago. Botham gave them a budget of how to allocate this money.

However communications broke down with the Heartland Alliance's representative when it was claimed that the last transfer of $4,000 had never been received by our sources in Iraq. Says Botham: “This underlines the perils of where we are working and who we are working with."

"Iraqi LGBT has supported another nine Iraqi refugees in Syria, as well as a safe house in Iraq and has had to spend money on freeing people from custody. Obviously in such situations one doesn't get a receipt."

"Between 1 June 2008 to 31 May 2009, the Polis supported project represented one sixth of the group's expenditure. Just under a quarter of the group's funding actually came from the group's founder, Ali Hili, his family and his partner."

Iraqi LGBT Chair Ali Hilli added: "We are confident that the charitable status will be accepted and will be a great help for the group. As we have been reporting for several years now, our people in Iraq are being killed and we desperately need more financial support to save them and where necessary move them out of Iraq."

"This work is dangerous and threatening. Even in London I am under real threat and have been forced to move as a result."

Donations for Iraqi LGBT can be made via PayPal. See the group's website at http://iraqilgbtuk.blogspot.com for details.


Syria underground Railroad Project

Covering the period from 1 June 2008 to 31 May 2009

Figures in US dollars

Total funding received from Heartland Alliance $15,520
Telephone cards and other means of communication $413
Basic food and supplies $486
Travel costs including passports and visa’s (for 5 people, from Bagdad to Damascus by road) $3,000
Legal fees (to prevent an individual from being imprisoned in Iraq) $4,000
Rent (Damascus) $7,000
Transportation costs (inside Syria to move nine Iraqi LGBT refugees when necessary
to another safe house) $413
Other costs $208
Total $15,218
Balance left $2

Iraqi LGBT expenditure in Syria

In addition to the funding received from Heartland Alliance, Iraqi LGBT from its own resources has supported another nine Iraqi LGBT refugees who had already made there own way to Syria.

The Heartland Alliance would not allow us to include the cost of transferring the money as part of their donation. We paid for it ourselves and we have therefore listed this bank fee under our own expenditure

Figures in pounds sterling

Covering the period from 1 June 2008 – 31 May 2009

Rent, food and other amenities like electricity (For two safe houses including any bribes paid.) £8,731
Communication (mobile phones, phone cards, internet etc) £95
Bank charges £415
Total £9,241