BBC World Service investigation with Newsnight reveals systematic deadly persecution of homosexuals in Iraq

Date: 12.09.2012     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.03
A new BBC World Service investigation with Newsnight has revealed that law enforcement agencies in Iraq are involved in the ongoing deadly persecution of homosexuals within the country.

In an investigation for the BBC World Service’s current affairs strand Assignment (broadcasting Thursday 13 September) and to be shown on Newsnight on Wednesday 12 September at 10.30pm, BBC Two, the BBC’s Natalia Antelava has gathered first-hand testimony from 17 gay men, both from within Iraq and also from those in hiding outside of the country, all of whom share consistent accounts of persecution and death threats, which go far beyond the stigma and homophobia that exists within the region. These accounts include the personal testimony of men who told the BBC they had been gang raped at police checkpoints.

Whilst there have been reports of militiamen in Iraq targeting homosexuals, testimonial evidence gathered by BBC World Service shows that the Iraqi police are involved in the ongoing deadly persecution of gays, which the government is ignoring.

Francesco Motta, Chief of the UNAMI Human Rights Office and Representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Iraq, told the BBC that Iraq’s government is in violation of international law and that failure to react to the killings makes the state a perpetrator in the crime.

Up to a 1000 gay men and women, activists say, have been murdered since 2004, most of them in recent years. The BBC visited a safe house outside of Iraq where five gay Iraqi men were in hiding, in fear of their lives after receiving death threats from the police in Iraq and where they were awaiting news of their asylum. The names of all the men who spoke to the BBC have been changed to protect their identity.

They told the BBC’s Natalia Antelava:

Man 1: "We were having a party with some gay friends. We weren’t noisy; it was just a small get together. Suddenly someone banged on the door. There were policemen and soldiers, they started beating us. They put all of us into the empty apartment downstairs took our mobiles and laptops off us, stripped us naked and made us walk to the cars."

Man 2: "In the police station they took pictures of us, the officers and policemen were touching us and laughing at us. One said: I am protecting my country. And what do you do? You just get laid. Then they poured cold water on us and they beat us."

Man 1: "I was terrified they were going to rape us."

BBC’s Natalia Antelava: "Why were you terrified of being raped?"

Man 1: "Because it happened to me before when I was stopped at police checkpoints."

All four of the men went on to confirm to the BBC they had been gang raped at police checkpoints.

The BBC also visited a neighbourhood in Baghdad where two gay men were in hiding having been threatened by the police and were now trying to leave the country. One of them told the BBC:

"We are afraid of everyone, it is the police who arrest us and the ordinary people who tell the police that these people are gay so we are afraid of everyone. The threat is much bigger now, now it’s not just the militia, it’s the police, the government who are coming after us."

Many activists blame the Iraqi government. Homosexuality is legal in Iraq, but "Qais" a former policeman, told the BBC he had been ordered to target gays. He couldn’t refuse and so he left his job. He told the BBC:

'Qais': "In 2006, 2007, 2008 we were busy fighting terrorism. We didn’t pay attention to gays. On top of this the Iraqi government had to respect the rule of law more when the Americans and the British were here. But now they have a lot of free time and police are going after gays."

BBC’s Natalia Antelava: "Have you ever been told to arrest gays?"

'Qais': "Yes. Twice. We had to arrest a guy accused of having an argument with someone, but once they arrested him they accused him of being gay. We were told to send him to another town where he was wanted for being gay. We sent him to that town and he disappeared… his family came to ask about him, we sent them to another town, but they could not find him. Then they got a death certificate from the police but they never got the body."

The BBC spoke to another young man called 'Ghaith', who is in hiding since his boyfriend was arrested 6 weeks ago – there was no official arrest warrant and nothing 'Ghaith', who worked at a police station, could do to help him.

'Ghaith': 2Being gay is not illegal in Iraq, it's not a crime. But he was told he was arrested because he was gay. They call gays ‘puppies’. They would beat him saying: you puppies are destroying our country, we must rid our country of you, we must kill you all."

'Ghaith' told the BBC that the last time he saw his boyfriend was the day before he died. His family hid the fact that he died in the hands of the police because of the shame of their son being gay and did not want any publicity.

'Ghaith' says his boyfriend first received threats in February 2012 around the same time the Iraqi media reported that dozens of young men were being killed around Baghdad. They called them 'emos'. In the West, emos or emotionals are teenagers with punk haircuts and a love for rock music. In Iraq they are associated with homosexuality.

In response Iraq’s interior ministry issued a statement on February 13th this year saying that emos were satanic and had to be eradicated. In the following weeks the United Nations managed to confirm 12 deaths of 11 young men and 1 woman. The UN believes there were many more deaths but it is difficult to confirm as many families chose to hide them.

In an atmosphere of fear, and secrecy it has been difficult for the BBC to establish the exact level of the government’s involvement in the anti-gay campaign. But the accounts of 17 gay men interviewed for the programme are consistent in their theme - all of them said the Interior Ministry statement sparked a new wave of violence, all have had friends or boyfriends killed and all said arrests are still happening.

The government denies that there is an issue. Both the Interior Ministry and the Prime Minister ignored the BBC’s requests for comment.

Ali Dabbagh, the spokesman for the Prime Minister, did speak to the BBC:

Ali Dabbagh: "We don’t have any cases which they have been violated and as I said we don’t have that big number of homosexuals and gays… they cannot have the same freedoms as they have in the west… they should stop behaving the way they do."

BBC’s Natalia Antelava: "It’s like telling a black person not to be black."

Ali Dabagh: "No, black is natural. This is just behaviour. They need to be respectful."