Polis Makes Progress on Iraqi LGBT Rights

By Kerry Eleveld

Originally published on Advocate.com April 29 2009 11:00 PM ET

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."