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Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Polis Makes Progress on Iraqi LGBT Rights

By Kerry Eleveld

Rep. Jared Polis has received a letter from Iraqi officials regarding reports of LGBT executions in the country, and he has sent a letter calling on the new U.S. ambassador to the country to investigate the charges.

After meeting with Iraqi officials earlier this month regarding the persecution of gays in Iraq, U.S. representative Jared Polis of Colorado has received a response letter from the Iraqi chargé d’affaires and has also initiated a new letter to the recently confirmed U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, that is cosigned by representatives Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin.

The letter from Iraqi chargé d’affaires Patricia Butenis denies any official government involvement in LGBT executions that have taken place but suggests some extra-governmental militias may have engaged in such violence.

"We have seen the international media report that, according to Amnesty International, as many as 25 men and boys were killed over the past few weeks by militia or relatives influenced by religious leaders who have publicly condemned homosexuality," Butenis wrote in a letter dated April 22, 2009. "Reports from Embassy contacts familiar with the areas where some of the bodies were found suggest the killings are the work of militias who believe homosexuality is a form of Western deviance that cannot be tolerated."

Brian Branton, Polis's chief of staff, said the information was a step forward after the Iraqi ministry had originally called the militia charges "unfounded." "We were glad to hear that acknowledgment in her letter because in earlier conversations with the state department they had not owned up to that," Branton said of Iraqi officials.

But Butenis rejected the idea that any of the Iraqi government's police had targeted LGBT individuals. "We have no evidence that [the Iraq government's] security forces are in any way involved with these militias," Butenis said in the letter.

Though Branton agreed that much of what's happening may not be explicitly sanctioned by the government as a whole, he also said people who work for the government may be taking matters into their own hands. "I actually think that you have some rogue individuals out there who are part of the government throwing people into jail and then, in some cases, killing them," he said. "Technically, it's not official, but it's happening nonetheless and no one seems to be stopping them."

Polis indicated in an earlier interview that he was inclined to believe that there’s "a breakdown in the chain of command." "I don't have any reason to believe that these instances were authorized at the highest level of civilian government," Polis said.

The letter also stated that no Iraqis currently on death row are charged with crimes related to homosexuality, according to the Iraqi minister of human rights, Wijdan Salim. "The [embassy justice attaché] has also reviewed relevant sections of the Iraqi Penal Code and confirmed that homosexual conduct is not punishable by death in Iraq," Butenis wrote.

Branton said it may be true that no one on death row is specifically charged with homosexuality. "But we think it’s unusual in the stories we've heard that five or six people will be thrown in a jail cell together, and it will become clear to them in the course of their conversations that they're all LGBT," he said.

Prior to traveling to Iraq earlier this month, Polis received a letter forwarded by an Iraqi human rights group that was written by a jailed man who said he was beaten into confessing he was a member of the gay rights group Iraqi LGBT. The group said the man had been sentenced to death in a court in Karkh, Iraq, and executed. (The group and the author's names were not made public for their protection.) Polis also enlisted the help of a translator to interview by phone a transgender Iraqi man who said he had been arrested, beaten, and raped by Ministry of Interior security forces.

On Monday, representatives Polis, Baldwin, and Frank -- the three openly gay members of Congress -- sent a letter on the matter to the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill.

"As LGBT Americans and cochairs of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, we are disturbed and shocked at allegations that Ministry of the Interior Security Forces may be involved in the mass persecution and execution of LGBT Iraqis," read the letter. "The persecution of Iraqis based on sexual orientation or gender identity is escalating and is unacceptable regardless of whether these policies are extrajudicial or state-sanctioned."

The letter called on the U.S. embassy in Iraq to "prioritize the investigation" of the allegations and work with the Iraqi government to end the executions of LGBT Iraqis. Branton said they were in the process of drafting another letter that would be signed by more members of Congress and sent to Secretary of State Clinton.

Ultimately, Polis would like to see the Iraqi government state an official policy on LGBT rights. "The Iraqi civilian government needs to make it clear that respect for human rights is a basic Iraqi value, including all groups that are not popular in Iraq -- Christians, gays, and atheists," he said. "There are moderate Arab countries where homosexuals are not accepted but at least the gays and lesbians who live there don't live in constant fear of life and limb and being arrested and executed by the police."

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