By Dan Littauer
Since late March, police have conducted a series of raids on private parties and meeting places, and more than 25 men have been arrested. The arrests are shrouded in secrecy but some information has leaked out.
At the Gay Middle East news website (GME) we have received several testimonies and published two reports from undercover sources in Damascus. In Beirut, Georges Azzi of Helem (the first LGBT advocacy group in an Arab country) confirms that arrests are taking place. Writing for the Huffington Post, Michael Luongo quotes him as saying: "Unfortunately none of our contacts can give us more details at this point. It seems that the police are tracking gay people in Syria now."
Neil Grungras of the US-based Organisation for Refuge, Asylum and Migration (also quoted by Luongo) says: "I too have heard rumours, but nothing concrete of an escalation. That being said, among our clients in Turkey was a gay Palestinian from Syria who spent four years in prison and was severely tortured on trumped-up charges because he was gay."
It seems that some men have now been in jail without bail or visits from family, friends or colleagues for over three months.
To many readers this may sound disheartening but inevitable. Isn't Syria a conservative and deeply religious Islamic country? Actually the reality is different. Syria sees itself as a secular and diverse country. In general, sexual minorities have been more or less left alone – marginally tolerated – as long as they didn't stray into the political arena and start making demands.
But the latest raids mark a frightening new crackdown from the Syrian authorities. They have invoked article 520 of the Syrian penal code of 1949 which outlaws "carnal relations against the order of nature" with a penalty of up to three years' imprisonment. Anyone seen as aiding people under suspicion or convicted of such an offence is also likely to get into trouble with the law. The result is that some unfortunate men have been left to languish in jail and some are alleged to have been treated brutally by the police.
Gay life in Syria is still underground. Private parties and meeting places are essential for LGBT people across Syria. There are no openly gay bars or organisations. People hold private parties in remote places where they hope to go unnoticed and be inoffensive. The authorities know of these gatherings and have tended to overlook them.
The crackdown has hit the heart of Syria's discreet but significant LGBT communities. The men are being held on various grounds including: performing a homosexual act; selling, buying or consuming illegal drugs; organising and promoting "obscene" parties.
A senior Syrian police officer handling the case has said: "The Syrian authorities' major interest is the safety of people. We targeted those parties only because of the increasing rate of drug use, while our presence in those parks and squares is because of the increasing rate of robberies."
While at first glance the "public safety" explanation may sound reasonable, men who are desperately trying to avoid the attention of the police because of their sexuality are not very likely to be robbing people and pushing drugs. In any case, drug use and dealing is much more common and prevalent in big heterosexual venues across Syria which are far more visible and accessible.
Meanwhile, in the last two weeks GME has received information that further arrests have been made of people suspected of cruising in discreet meeting places. Several dozen may now be in prison for "gay offences". Put simply, these raids and arrests seem to have been specifically designed to trap and arrest men suspected of homosexuality; they are unlikely to be anything to do with public safety in Syria.
The outlook is grim for those now under arrest. A conviction for homosexuality in Syria would not merely condemn you to a prison sentence, but upon release you are very likely to be ostracised by family, friends and colleagues. In some cases physical attacks and even "honour killings" have been known to follow. A mere accusation of being homosexual can be a death sentence.
Furthermore, the crackdown is not just a local issue – it has repercussions across the region. Thousands of LGBT Iraqis have relocated to Syria fleeing the horrific violence in their country, their plight made all the more poignant after the Iraqi authorities' recent raid on a safehouse in Karbala.
Now, both Syrian and Iraqi LGBT communities across Syria face an uncertain and unsafe future, the latter terrified of being deported back to Iraq and almost certain death. While some journalists have portrayed this as a broader political issue, LGBT communities across Syria are desperate to avoid such categorisations as they simply want to carry on with their life in a discreet and inoffensive manner.
This is not a "public safety issue" but a human rights one – Amnesty International has been contacted and is looking into the case. Let's hope that good sense may yet prevail in Syria. The Syrian authorities could quietly drop the charges and release these men safely back into their communities (or alternatively find them a safe home in a country that can adopt them). Then Syria could repeal section 520 and allow LGBT people to live their lives without fear or persecution.
• This article was amended on 8 July 2010 to clarify the source of the quotes from Georges Azzi and Neil Grungras.