Above: Demonstrations against LGBT rights abuses in Iran at the Berlin Pride Celebration (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)
With the election last June of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president, there were hopes for a Persian Spring that would improve human rights for the country’s struggling LGBT community. Those hopes have not been borne out.
Two new studies addressing the plight of the LGBT community in the Islamic Republic — and a detailed letter from human rights organizations to Rouhani mandate an alarming conclusion: Iran’s authoritarian regime continues to enforce anti-LGBT repression, and sanctions that reflect lethal homophobia remain codified in law.
Rouhani declared prior to his election victory: “All Iranian people should feel there is justice” and “Long live citizen rights!” His rhetoric proved to be empty.
The United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, published a scathing indictment of violence against LGBT Iranians last October. Under the section headed “Other Forms of Cruel and Inhuman Punishment,” Shaheed chastised Iran’s authorities for meting out the penalty of flogging for “illicit relationships and nonpenetrative homosexual acts.”
Shaheed, widely considered one of the world’s top human rights experts, noted in his report that Iran’s effort to revise its Islamic Penal Code failed to expunge “homosexual acts” from the list of capital offenses.
Shari’a — what is commonly referred to as Islamic law — plays a critical role in the application of punishment, particularly the death penalty, under Iranian law. Shari’a law codifies punishments called hudud, which are applied to a defined set of crimes, including acts of sodomy. Separately, there is a form of punishment labeled ta’zir, to be meted out at a judge’s discretion; this usually includes “other homosexual acts.”
Iranian Islamic law differentiates between passive and active sodomy convictions. A convicted passive partner faces the death penalty, whereas an active partner, if unmarried, may receive 100 lashes. A married active partner faces execution.
The regime vehemently rejects Shaheed’s report. In January, Mullah Mostafa Pour Mohammadi, Rouhani’s justice minister, called Shaheed a “corrupt person.” As deputy intelligence minister, Pour Mohammadi was one of a circle of top officials responsible for the slaughter of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.
All this helps explain the bleak outlook for the realization of Rouhani’s promises of reform. “Nothing essential has changed. The structure is still the same. It’s a play, a comic and ugly performance. They’re relying on the naiveté of people to be able to succeed,” the gay Iranian poet Payam Feili said about Rouhani’s administration. Feili’s poetry cannot be published because he is on a blacklist.
A second report, entitled “Denied Identity: Human Rights Abuses Against Iran’s LGBT Community,” was published in November by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. In contrast to Shaheed’s report, which covers ethnic, sexual, and religious minorities, the New Haven-based center devoted the entirety of its 60-page study to Iran’s LGBT community, and conducted scores of interviews with gay, lesbian, and transgender Iranians.
In testimony, Maryam Ahmadi, described what took place after a prison surveillance camera filmed her kissing her girlfriend, Sara, as they were awaiting trial for hosting a party “celebrating their union”: “I don’t know if [guards] actually struck us 50 times or however many times it was. I fainted. When I gained consciousness, I noticed they’d placed me next to a small garden and splashed water on me. I don’t know if they continued to strike the 100 lashes I was to receive while unconscious.”
The center’s disturbing conclusion: “There is no indication that the situation of Iran’s LGBT persons will change, in law or in practice, in the near future.”
The ongoing repression of LGBT Iranians prompted four human rights organizations — Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and Iranian Queer Organization — to write Rouhani in late December, 2013. The groups called for Iran to repeal its laws imposing anti-LGBT punishments “ranging from 100 lashes for consensual sexual relations between women to the death penalty for consensual intercourse between men.”
The Islamic Penal Code criminalizes same-sex touching and intimate kissing, which are punishable by up to 74 lashes.
The letter detailed a bill of particulars of violence against LGBT Iranians, including the storming of a birthday party with mostly LGBT-identified guests in the city of Kermanshah, in western Iran, by 50 members of the Nabi Akram Brigade of the Revolutionary Guards in October. “Armed members of the security forces verbally abused, assaulted, and beat many of the 80 or so people attending the party, as well as waiters and other staff.”
Kermanshah Province’s Basij Forces — a state-sponsored gang of thugs — issued a statement saying their aim was to end a “homosexual and Satan-worshiping network with dozens of [members].”
While the major world powers are understandably focused on stopping Iran’s drive toward nuclear weapons, the wretched condition of LGBT Iranians is not a front-and-center concern. In January, Berlin LGBT magazine Siegessäule asked why the LGBT community in the West remains “silent” about their counterparts in the Islamic Republic.
Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based journalist and fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.