Monday, 20 December 2010

Major new report documents situation of Iranian LGBT, in Iran and in exile

A 25-year-old gay Iranian man, living now in Turkey as a recognized refugee
By Paul Canning

In the first large-scale report by a major international human rights organisation on the situation of Iranian LGBT, Human Rights Watch has said that it cannot be ruled out that Iran is sentencing sexual minorities who engage in consensual same-sex relations to death under the guise that they have committed forcible sodomy or rape.

The issue of executions has been the subject of international debate with activists including Peter Tatchell criticised over whether death penalty cases they have raised are actually gay as well as for a supposed lack of 'cultural understanding' of Iran. The journalist Doug Ireland wrote in July about the criticism by Human Rights Watch's now-resigned Executive Director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program, Scott Long, of Tatchell and others, criticism which went as far as arguing that 'gays are not being persecuted in Iran'.

Because trials on moral charges in Iran are usually held in camera, it is difficult to determine, Human Rights Watch now says in this report, what proportion of those charged and executed for same-sex conduct are LGBT and in what proportion the alleged offense was consensual. 

Can Iranian LGBT 'live discreetly'?

The Iranian government maintains that "most of these individuals have been charged for forcible sodomy or rape." However in just one report, by Ireland last December, twelve men were facing execution for sodomy and a joint appeal had been made for them by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), and COC of the Netherlands.

But Ireland noted that:
It is extremely difficult to obtain information about death penalty cases involving homosexuality under today’s repressive theocratic regime in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where the press is heavily censored and journalists, regime critics, and human rights advocates are routinely persecuted and arrested and where the subject of same-sex relations is officially considered a political and religious taboo. Defendants in sodomy cases are denied open trials. Last month [November 2009], Human Rights Watch, basing its finding on an Iranian newspaper report, told of the execution of two men for sodomy.
The questioning of whether LGBT actually are executed - or even persecuted at all - has led those judging Iranian LGBT seeking refuge in Western countries to argue that it is possible to 'live discreetly' without suffering consequences. This idea was comprehensively struck down by the British Supreme Court in July in a case which involved an Iranian, Mahmood.

Mahmood was actually known to the authorities as a gay man, and had already narrowly escaped being hanged for his sexual orientation, he clearly could not be expected to live ‘discreetly’, and yet this is exactly what the judge ruled when dismissing his appeal.

He told Stonewall in their report on LGBT asylum in the UK, 'No Going Back':
I was known for being gay and as soon as you’re known you don’t have any protection, they can pick you up and accuse you with anything. Once they picked me up for drinking and I received ninety lashes and then they took me to another room where they told me who I am, what I’d done before; you did this, you’ve been with this boyfriend, you have to be executed soon. Next time you come here you don’t have any other chances – you’re not going to get out. 
The next time I got caught my boyfriend ran but because of my record they accused me of having a relationship with the guy who ran away and they kept me detained for three days. They planned to sentence me for execution. If I’d been sent to court I wouldn’t be here now. I was one of the luckiest ones – my dad who beat me nearly to death paid for a powerful neighbour to get me out of jail. But it was his rule that I had to leave my country because he didn’t want any more trouble. He didn’t have any money to pay and there weren’t any more chances for me if I got caught.
The [British immigration tribunal] judge refused me based on, you’ve been caught, but you’ve never been in the high court to be accused of homosexuality. He was telling me there is no great danger for you to go back and live discreetly, so we can’t grant you asylum status. My answer was if I had been sent to the high court I wouldn’t be here." 
The 'go back and be discrete' argument against granting asylum is still being applied in numerous Western countries, most recently highlighted in Sweden where it is being applied to an Iraqi Kurdish lesbian couple.

Human Rights Watch has intervened on several occasions to ensure that countries, including the Netherlands and Sweden, put a stop to the removal of Iranian LGBT.

An unfair legal system in Iran

Those charged with engaging in consensual same-sex offenses stand little chance of receiving a fair trial, the Human Rights Watch report says. Judges ignore penal code evidentiary guidelines in sodomy cases and often rely instead on confessions extracted through physical torture and extreme psychological pressure.

"Iran is not only one of the rare countries that imposes the death penalty for consensual same-sex relations, it also has people sitting on death row who allegedly committed sodomy as minors," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director said. "Every time the Iranian judiciary issues a death sentence for consensual sex, or against a juvenile offender, it is violating its international legal obligations."

The 'disconnect' in Iranian LGBT lives

However the report points to what it calls "a very noticeable disconnect", one which has also complicated international attitudes to Iranian treatment of LGBT and has affected the reception of asylum claims in many western countries. Especially in Iran's larger urban areas, it says, "thousands of Iranians identify themselves as LGBT and socialize in public and private, and contribute to vibrant and defiant LGBT communities in the Persian-language blogosphere." It mentions men who have videotaped themselves having gay sex.

The report states that hundreds of self identified gay men claim exemption from military service on the grounds of homosexuality or rather "having a psychological or behavioral disorder" (transgender people are no longer classified this way, rather as “people with hormonal imbalance” or “diabetics”). Only those who identify themselves as “passive partners,” or maf’ul, (as opposed to fa’el , or the “active” partner) will be considered for military exemption. Further it says that because of severe, practical restrictions to claiming the exception "thousands" are unable to claim it.

Ahmad, a 28-year-old gay male, told Human Rights Watch that a private doctor and army doctors he visited during the process tried to convince him that he was transgender, and not gay: “I told the army officials that I am gay and cannot be in the military. They said no, you are not gay. There are no gay people in Iran. You are a transsexual.”

But there being several other ways of gaining exemption from military service, such as working for a company that has contracted with the military. Once one gains this "disorder" exemption, the reason for it is stamped on the man's identity papers. The report doesn't deal with the contradiction between this and supposed 'all-pervasive' persecution and concentrates only on the humiliations involved in claiming this exemption.

Such examples given in the report could suggest that there is no consistent, methodical persecution of LGBT in Iran. In particular in the case of a gay man or lesbian woman who didn't act on his or her homosexuality, or who did so only occasionally in a very secretive way that they did so solely because she or he feared persecution. According to one commentator, "one can easily conclude that there are a large number of gay people in Iran who, in fact, don't fear persecution. It is very easy, with this evidence, for the [asylum] adjudicator to discount this behavior as personal choice rather than 'reasonable fear'."

A UK Immigration Advisory Service (IAS) report 'Refugee Roulette' published in January noted that in the Iranian country-of-origin (COI) information made available for UK Border Agency workers to judge claims there is a paragraph that talks about “a park in Tehran where homosexuals can meet”. This paragraph had been regularly relied upon, IAS said, to refuse a claim for protection on the basis that the gay applicant can exist ‘discretely’ in Iran. However this same park was covered in a 2007 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) report. Meeting other gays in this park is dangerous, CBC was told. One gay Iranian said on camera it was “suicidal”.

Despite the meeting places in parks and the lively blogosphere, the report over its 108 pages does demonstrate that many Iranian LGBT are victimized both by the state as well as by other Iranians "in part because those actors know they can get away with it."
"Members of sexual minorities in Iran are hounded on all sides," says Whitson. "The laws are stacked against them; the state openly discriminates against them; and they are vulnerable to harassment, abuse, and violence because their perpetrators feel they can target them with impunity."
Incidents often occur in parks as well as cafes, but the report documents cases in which security forces raided homes. These, the report says, "have received much international attention over the past several years" but they seem to be part of a larger crackdown on immoral activity carried out in the private sphere, including sexual relations outside traditional marriage (of both the heterosexual and homosexual nature) and consumption or possession of alcohol and illegal drugs.

It says on the monitoring of internet sites for the purpose of detaining people - entrapment.
"According to some LGBT rights groups outside Iran, security forces regularly monitored popular internet dating sites for both gay and straight men such as Manjam in order to lure and entrap unsuspecting gay men. Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm the methods and capabilities of the government when it comes to monitoring LGBT sites, nor has it secured evidence suggesting that Iran’s security forces or judiciary have engaged in a systematic campaign to target and entrap gay men and other members of Iran’s LGBT community. Despite this, Human Rights has, over the years, gathered accounts from several individuals, primarily gay males, alleging that they were caught through internet entrapment stings."
It reports on allegations that members of the security forces had sexually assaulted or raped detainees.

The situation of refugees

Regarding refugees, they interviewed 125 who have fled to Turkey. This is the main transit route out of Iran because people can cross the border without a visa.

There they can register with UNHCR which, since 2008, has recognised LGBT as members of a 'particular social group' eligible for refugee status under the 1951 Refugee Convention and they then become eligible for resettlement.

Iranian LGBT refugees and asylum seekers face many of the same problems that all refugees face in Turkey. The refugee registration process is a multi-phased process during which applicants must apply for “temporary asylum” with the Turkish Ministry of Interior and undergo refugee status determination interviews with UNHCR.

The process from start to finish, when the applicant boards a plane to go to a resettlement country, can take up to two years if not longer. However some are resettled in under a year. The report says that reasons for the speed of the resettlement process is not clear even among the same group of refugees.

During their time in Turkey, all refugees and asylum seekers are constrained by a range of regulations restricting what they can and cannot do while they are in Turkey.

Turkish law requires that all refugees and asylum seekers pay fees for residency, which must be renewed every six months. According to Turkish law, they have the right to apply for exemption of residency fees in accordance with Turkey’s Article 88 of the Law on Collection of Fees (No. 492). Most, however, are not aware of this right. Those who have applied told Human Rights Watch that it is nearly impossible for the exemption to be granted. Most refugees and asylum seekers do not have the ability to pay the residency fees.

Without residency permits it is extremely difficult to gain access to health care, education, social assistance, and employment. In general, refugees and asylum seekers are responsible for their own expenses, including housing.

All refugees and asylum seekers have restricted freedom of movement and must be assigned to a “satellite city” away from larger urban areas such as Istanbul, Ankara, or Izmir. They must sign in at the local “foreigners” police station once or several times a week so that authorities can ensure that they have not left their assigned city.

Little security for refugees in Turkey

Because of this resettlement in small, conservative cities, asylum seekers suffer discrimination and abuse at the
hands of local townspeople, difficulties with Turkish government authorities including the Turkish police, and they also have problems with locally recruited and sometimes other UNHCR staff.

The Helsinki Citizens Assembly (HCA) and the Organization for Refugee, Asylum and Migration (Oram), reported extensively on these problems in Unsafe Haven: The Security Challenges Facing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Turkey [PDF] last year. Human Rights Watch adopt most of that report's recommendations in this one. 

Despite these documented problems in Turkey, current UNHCR guidelines do not consider sexual orientation or gender identity as factors warranting expedited resettlement although it is suppoed to be appropriate for those "whose life, liberty, safety, health, or fundamental human rights are at risk in the country where they seek refuge" or "who have compelling reasons to be removed from their country of asylum," or for refugees "without local integration prospects, for whom no other solution is available."

Repeating the recommendations of Oram and HCA, Human Rights Watch calls on states receiving Iranian LGBT refugees, and particularly the government of Turkey, to, among other things:
  • prohibit and prosecute acts of violence against them,
  • allow freedom of movement for these individuals (including allowing them to settle in larger urban areas), and 
  • allow them to apply for work permits and residency exemptions.
It calls on UNHCR to, among other things:
It calls on resettlement countries, including EU member states, Canada, Australia, and the United States, to prohibit refoulement (deportation) of LGBT refugees or asylum seekers to Iran based on the notion that there is no systematic persecution of sexual minorities in that county, and that these individuals can live comfortably in Iran as long as they conceal their sexual orientation and identity.

We are a Buried Generation

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