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Saturday, 5 March 2005

Death to Deviants: My escape from homophobic hell in Algeria

Flag AlgeriaImage by erjkprunczyk via Flickr
Source: New Humanist Magazine

By Ramzi Isalam

Algeria is not a safe place for queers. Gay sex is totally illegal; punishable by up to two years' imprisonment. Arrest and torture by the police and military are ever-present dangers. The victims have no legal redress. This state-sanctioned homophobic persecution is compounded by the rise of an armed fundamentalist movement. Islamist terrorists target gays for beatings, torture and extra-judicial execution.

Algerian homosexuals are caught between the twin barbarisms of a totalitarian state and a clerical fascist opposition. Everyone is against us. Human rights groups in Algiers do nothing to defend 'sodomites'. In their view, there is no such thing as gay human rights.

My first experience of homophobic violence was when I was raped by a soldier at the age of 14. There was nothing I could do. I could not go to the police. They would have probably arrested and beaten me.

A decade later, I was beaten and threatened with death by Islamic fundamentalists. Two of my gay friends were murdered by them.

Gays are not the only victims. Some of my non-gay neighbours were also killed. People just disappear overnight; kidnapped by the police, army or Islamist terror groups. We never see them again. Thousands of people have disappeared and their families are still campaigning to discover their fate. This has been the state of terror in Algeria for more than a decade.

In addition to the dangers on account of my homosexuality, I could face up to five years in jail for evading the draft. I refused military service because I object to the way the armed forces abuse the civilian population and are involved in a dirty war against dissidents (including covert assassinations and bombings, which they then blame on the Islamists). I also object to the draft out of fear for my personal safety. Gay recruits are often queer-bashed and sexually abused. In Algerian civilian and military prisons, homophobic torture and rape are commonplace. I don't want to suffer that fate.

When I fled to Britain and claimed asylum in 2003, the Home Office acknowledged I could be jailed for a period of three months to five years for draft evasion. It also conceded: "In Algeria homosexuality is illegal and attitudes to homosexuality are not enlightened. It is therefore likely that homosexuals suffer discrimination, and on occasions are subjected to physical and verbal abuse by non-state agents as a result of their sexual orientation."

It shocked me when the Home Office nevertheless concluded: "You have not established a well-founded fear of persecution and you do not qualify for asylum."

I could now face deportation to Algeria. I live every day fearing arrest and forcible repatriation. If I was sent back, I could be jailed and tortured by the Algerian government - or be hunted down and murdered by the homophobic Islamists.

About 100,000 people have been killed by the fundamentalists (and another 50,000 by the Algerian police and army in their brutal attempts to crush the Islamist insurrection). The victims of the Islamists include women who refuse to be veiled, gay partners who violate the strict taboo on same-sex love, people who hold a liberal interpretation of the lslamic faith, and progressive students, intellectuals, journalists, lawyers, trade unionists and left-wing activists.

Those assassinated include feminist leader Nabila Diahnine and theatre director Abdelkader Alloula. Other victims include students and academics who refuse to study within a religious framework, and journalists who write the truth uncensored by clerical fanatics.

Islamist vigilantes have also targeted women who fail to conform to the Muslim tradition of subservience and modesty. Wives risk death if they go out to work, instead of staying at home and waiting on their husbands. Women are being killed for studying at university, wearing make-up or short skirts, and attending mixed schools or swimming pools. Any female behaviour deemed 'scandalous' by the militants can have lethal consequences, as 16–year old Katia Bengana discovered. She was shot dead on her way home from school for refusing to wear the hijab.

The goal of the Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria is the establishment of a religious state where every aspect of life is determined by the principles of the Koran and Muslim tradition. This means the enforcement of Sharia law, where apostates, queers and adulteresses are stoned to death.

The same repression exists, to varying degrees, throughout nearly all the Middle East. Wherever fundamentalist Islam has state power, democracy and human rights are crushed. There are no free elections or free press. Religious minorities are persecuted. Socialists and trade unionists are detained without trial, tortured and sometimes executed.

The repression is particularly intense against queers. Same-sex relations are punishable by death in eight Islamic nations, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, northern Nigeria and Sudan (where the racist Islamic fundamentalist government is currently colluding with the massacre of black Africans in Darfur).

Even some of the more progressive Muslim societies are violently homophobic. The Palestinian Authority stands accused of unlawfully detaining and torturing gay and bisexual men. Hundreds of Palestinian gays have fled to Israel to escape murder by the fundamentalist group Hamas and the armed factions of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The PLO was once committed to a democratic, secular state of Palestine. Now, in a bid to fend off the political challenge from Hamas, it is adopting an increasingly Islamist agenda. The losers are gays, women and liberal-minded Muslims.

For queers living anywhere in the Middle East and North Africa, danger, secrecy and fear are routine facts of life. The idea of being able to live and love openly is inconceivable. Our minds are constantly troubled by the possibility of discovery, blackmail, disinheritance and murder.

My personal struggle for freedom as a Muslim gay man began a long time ago. In 1994, at the beach, one of my gay friends was shot dead by Islamic fundamentalists from the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA). This was the first time I realised that being gay in Algeria could well be a death sentence.

The same year, GIA militants came to my high school and warned us that education was unIslamic. They told us to stop studying. Girls who refused to wear the veil were threatened with death. We had to stay away from school for 15 days, until the police gave us armed protection.

In May 1996, the GIA bombed my street. Many people were killed, including a friend of mine who was hit by shrapnel from a van bomb. I was cut by flying glass. Our house was destroyed. I lost everything.

Around the same time, one of my gay friends, a neighbour, was snatched from his house by the GIA. We never saw him again. Local people praised the fundamentalists for 'purifying' society and getting rid of 'rubbish and perversion'. This made me realise that, as a gay man, I was someone whose very existence was vilified. It is a horrible feeling to live in a society where you have no place and where people like you are being killed without arousing any sympathy within your community.

Three years later, the GIA posted notices around my area, saying homosexuals would be killed. In 2000, many gay friends left Algeria, as they feared for their safety. This made me very scared. I, too, began to think of leaving.

The following year, I witnessed the stoning of two young men suspected of being gay. A neighbour started to beat them, and other neighbours joined in, pelting them with stones. One of the men was bleeding very badly. I dared not intervene. The crowd would have turned on me. This incident was very disturbing. If the mob had any suspicion I was gay, at that moment of hysteria I could easily have been stoned to death.

In February 2002 I heard about the police raiding a private gay party, after a neighbour's complaint. All the gays were arrested. Two were raped while in police custody. The others were severely beaten.

Later that year, I resumed a secret relationship with an ex-boyfriend. Since we lived with our families, the only place we could have sex was on a nearby building site. One night, we were discovered by a GIA terrorist. He produced a gun, and pushed and beat me, threatening: "You sexual deviants should be killed." I ran off. Luckily, I was near a police station; otherwise he probably would have shot me. But I could not go to the police because the police do not protect 'sodomites'.

Later, three men came looking for me at my house. They searched all the rooms. From my brother's description, one was probably the GIA terrorist who threatened to kill me.

I realised I was in serious danger from the Islamists. I also knew my military exemption was due to expire, and I would be forced to join the army, where gay conscripts suffer violent and sexual abuse.

In January 2003 the Military Police came to my house. They told my father I had to go to their headquarters, collect my papers, and join the army. That was the last straw. I knew I had to leave Algeria immediately.

I heard Algerians were being granted asylum in Britain. So I flew to Heathrow on 9 February 2003 and applied for asylum. I thought I would be greeted with sympathy and understanding. Instead, I was fingerprinted and photographed, like a common criminal. Since then, the Home Office has twice turned down my asylum claim. I feel betrayed and fearful.

Nevertheless, I am also enjoying the pleasure and relief of living openly as a gay man. For the first time in my life I have gained self-confidence and self-esteem. This would have been impossible if I had remained in Algeria. There are no gay organisations or support groups there. Gay people have no protection from arrest, torture and murder. I cannot believe a Labour Home Secretary expects me to give up my new-found freedom and to return to the homophobic hell of Algeria.

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