As concern over the killings of gay Iraqis grew in 2006 and 2007, the US Department of State appears to have done little more than develop media talking points and squabble over who at that agency should handle press interviews.
“[I]t is outrageous to see that by walking away from their responsibility to further investigate, document, and then ultimately discuss the human rights abuses with the Iraqi government, the US government missed a great opportunity to prevent the mass-scale attacks against LGBT community, which happened earlier this year in Iraq,” wrote Hossein Alizadeh, regional coordinator for Middle East and North Africa at the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), in an email.
Writing in Gay City News, Doug Ireland first broke the story in March of 2006 that Iraqi gays were being killed by death squads. Ireland and other gay press outlets continued covering the story in 2006 and into 2007, with the mainstream press offering occasional stories. The killings and the gay press reports on them have continued into 2009.
In September 2007 –– nearly two years ago –– Gay City News sent a Freedom of Information request to the State Department that sought all records “that relate to or identify homicides, assaults, or other violent acts committed against homosexual persons in Iraq.”
On May 26 of this year, the department responded, releasing two documents, totaling nine pages, that represent all the records that agency compiled from March 1, 2003, roughly the start of the Iraq War, through the date of the records request. No documents were withheld and only a small portion of the released documents was blacked out.
Two pages consist of a letter, dated March of 2007, from Senator Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, to the department that forwarded an email from a constituent who was concerned about the killings.
The other seven pages are mostly internal emails –– three pages are a 2006 Washington Blade story on the killings –– with one from September 2006 and the rest from 2007.
The earliest State Department email was from a Larilyn Reffet, a staffer based in Baghdad, to other staff. Reffet noted that she had reached out to gay groups and received one initial response, but nothing more. It was not clear from her email if just Iraqi gay groups did not respond, or gay groups outside of Iraq also ignored her.
Contained in her email is the text of a 2006 letter that was sent to Paula Ettelbrick, then IGLHRC’s executive director, in response to a letter about the killings that Ettelbrick sent to the department. The department appeared to rebuff Ettelbrick in that letter.
“Our Embassy in Baghdad is interested in further dialogue on this issue with NGOs in Iraq,” wrote Victor Hurtado, a department staffer.
“NGOs in Iraq,” or non-governmental organizations, may be diplomat-speak for saying the department has no interest in talking to IGLHRC or other groups outside of Iraq.
Other emails show department staffers were concerned about mainstream press coverage and developed some talking points to respond to reporters. They noted when the department was not mentioned in such stories.
When Deb Price, a Detroit News columnist and an out lesbian, sought comment on the issue, staff had a minor tiff via email over who would talk to her.
Michael Petrelis, a longtime gay and AIDS and persistent critic of gay groups, faulted the State Department and gay groups.
“I am saying as an activist, IGLHRC had a responsibility to write back to Hurtado and say you should widen the circle of people you are willing to talk to,” he said. “They should have gone public with this. I don’t see the State Department alone as the problem. I see the NGOs in the US not engaging the gay public on these matters.”
Working with the Rainbow World Fund, a San Francisco-based relief agency, Petrelis and other activists recently raised $7,500 for gay Iraqi refugees. They will hold another fundraiser on June 19.
There is no evidence in the documents that the department ever discussed the killings with the Iraqi government. Alizadeh wrote that the documents showed the Bush administration stance –– “only making occasional vague comments about the high-level violence in that country (as an excuse not to pursue the issue further) when pressured by the media or NGOs (like IGLHRC).”
He added, “I hope President Obama’s State Department will not abandon Iraqi gay and lesbians. There is a lot we can do to prevent further violence against this most vulnerable group.”
At a June 10 press briefing this year, a State Department spokesperson said, “In general, we absolutely condemn acts of violence and human rights violations committed against individuals in Iraq because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This is an issue that we’ve been following very closely since we have been made aware of these allegations and we are aware of the allegations... This US Embassy in Baghdad has raised and will continue to raise the issue with senior officials from the government of Iraq and have urged them to respond appropriately to all credible reports of violence against gay and lesbian Iraqis.”
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International did not respond to requests for comment.
Gay City News sent to same records request to the Defense Department, which said it had no records, and the Defense Intelligence Agency, which has not completed its response.