Iraq: US and UK failing to take gay pogrom seriously

The Guardian

Last week, 12 Iraqi police officers burst into a house in Karbala, beat up and blindfolded the six occupants and bundled them off in three vans, taking the computers they found with them. The house was then burned down by unknown people. The house was a new "emergency shelter" run by the Iraqi LGBT organisation. Two days later, one of the men turned up in hospital with a throat wound saying he'd been tortured. Iraqi LGBT has ordered those in its other two safe houses to move immediately.

The group says the police action is consistent with other state attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Iraq. It has information that the other five – two gay men, one lesbian and two transgender people – have been transported 100 miles north to the interior ministry in Baghdad, where they'll be interrogated (ie tortured) to find out more about the group. Then, going on past experience, they'll probably be handed to militias loyal to Shi'a clerics Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr (both of whom have called for homosexuals to be put to death) and their mutilated bodies will turn up later.

But it is also clear from past experience that there is unlikely to be a sustained international outcry from gay people, governments or others about this latest incident.

Last year, the US state department, following representations by Rep Jared Polis, said that it was investigating reports of trials and executions of LGBT people – including for membership of the Iraqi LGBT group – as well as reports of arrests, beatings and rape by interior ministry security forces. Polis said that at least one gay man has been executed by the government for "membership of a banned organisation" and that "egregious human rights violations ... [are] being carried out by Iraqi government officials from the ministry of the interior".

But this was immediately undermined by the US embassy in Baghdad. Patricia Butenis, its chargé d'affaires, said: "We have no evidence that security forces are in any way involved with these militias."

This official dismissal is echoed in the British foreign office's latest human rights report that does acknowledge persecution in Iraq but claims that "official figures do not show a significant overall increase in violence against, or systematic abuse of, the homosexual community by fundamentalists or militia groups". It makes no mention of allegations of state involvement and repeats claims by Iraq's human rights minister and the interior ministry that murders of LGBT people "will be prosecuted" (none have) and that "homosexuality is not a criminal offence in Iraq". Iraqi LGBT, however, has two documents from a judge ordering arrests of homosexuals in Babel province earlier this year; those arrested have disappeared.

The latest US state department human rights report does suggest that the Iraqi state is offering no protection to LGBT people, saying the "authorities had not announced any arrests or prosecutions of any persons for killing, torturing, or detaining any LGBT individuals by year's end". In diplomatic terms this represents a glacial sort of progress in criticism of the Iraqis. The state department, like the foreign office, is "concerned". But Neil Grungras, executive director of the San Francisco-based Organisation for Refuge, Asylum & Migration, who follows developments closely, says "these concerns have thus far not translated into concrete action".

The foreign office, similarly "concerned", has told Iraqi LGBT for two years that the British embassy in Baghdad is "investigating" reports of state involvement.

In that time Britain has managed to "investigate" and publicly criticise both the Malawian and the Ugandan governments.

At a state department event yesterday, Hillary Clinton touted US support, like Britain's, for African LGBT activists. Four were invited guests and she even offered funding. In both Malawi and Uganda there is a strong religious opposition to homosexuality but this hasn't stopped criticism. Yet in Iraq "religious sensitivities" are mentioned behind the scenes as the reason why Britain won't publicly criticise inaction on the killings of LGBT people, let alone killings by or with the connivance of the Iraqi government. Of course, in reality, the "sensitivities" are primarily political and LGBT people are being sacrificed for the sake of them.

Africa is the "gay international issue du jour" and that's a good thing, but the absence of any attention – any – to Iraq screams out for explanation. Iraqi LGBT has documented 738 killings in five years, similar numbers to those suffered by Iraq's Christian minority. Yet Iraq's state-colluded pogrom of gays isn't the subject of demonstrations by the international gay community, sustained actions by international human rights organisations, protests by lesbian or gay celebrities or even fundraising for "safe houses" – though they have one major funder, the Dutch humanist charity, Hivos.

Ali Hili, Iraq's LGBT leader, said "people in the west have been too quiet for too long about the violence against LGBT people in Iraq. The militia and the powers that be know they can get away with it while that silence continues."

Last year, group members in Iraq responded to the outrageous statement from Butenis, saying they were "fed up with such 'political' words" and that "the Americans are doing nothing to stop the terror campaign against them. They believe that the priority for Hillary Clinton's state department and Obama's administration is to not upset the Iraqi government."

One could say the same of the British and one can understand why LGBT Iraqis are fed up. The foreign office knows about the Karbala raid. Why is someone not sent out immediately to investigate and then, once the truth is known, the foreign office can condemn it? Why are we standing up for some LGBT people in the rest of the world and not others? Can this pogrom carry on happening and not a finger be lifted to try and stop it?

• This article was amended at 19.15 on 23 June 2010. The original referred to the six abducted being "two gay men, one lesbian and two transgender people". This breakdown should have referred to the five who are still missing. This has now been corrected, Wednesday 23 June 2010

Paul Canning