By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 17, 2009
BAGHDAD, Aug. 16 -- Human Rights Watch will urge in a report to be released Monday that the Iraqi government do more to protect gay men, saying militiamen have killed and tortured scores in recent months as part of a social cleansing campaign.
Although the scope of the problem remains unclear, hundreds of gay men may have been killed this year in predominantly Shiite Muslim areas, the report's authors said, basing their conclusion on interviews with gay Iraqi men, hospital officials and an unnamed United Nations official in Baghdad.
"The government has done absolutely nothing to respond," said Scott Long, director of the gay rights program at Human Rights Watch. "So far there has been pretty much a stone wall."
Homosexuality was tacitly accepted during the last years of Saddam Hussein's rule, but Iraqis have long viewed it as taboo and shameful.
Iraq's human rights minister, Wijdan Salim, has expressed concern about the reported slayings, but few other government officials have addressed the issue publicly or indicated that they are disturbed by the reports.
A senior police official in Baghdad said authorities could not effectively protect gay men because they often do not report crimes.
"To protect someone, you have to know who he is and his location," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the issue. "It's very easy for the militiamen to find them and harm them, and it's very difficult for our forces to protect them."
Reports of slayings targeting gay men began circulating early this spring in Sadr City, a conservative Shiite district in eastern Baghdad. Gay men were also reportedly slain in Basra, Najaf and Diyala province, Human Rights Watch said.
Gay activists said militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr had target lists containing the names of men suspected of being gay. Some were killed and some were tortured, they said. Human Rights Watch said a commonly reported form of torture involved injecting super glue into men's rectums.
When violence in Iraq began ebbing in 2008 and militia and insurgent leaders lost sway in several parts of the country, social norms became less strict. Women began to shed abayas -- long black robes that cover them from head to toe -- in certain formerly conservative neighborhoods. Liquor stores began selling alcohol openly. And gay men began to congregate in cafes and other venues for parties. The advent of the Internet in Iraq after the 2003 invasion also allowed gay men to form bonds and circles of friends.
The attacks on gay men appear to have coincided with a call by religious leaders in Sadr City and other Shiite communities to curb behavior that clerics called unnatural and unhealthy.
Sadr movement officials say they condemn homosexuality, but have denied participating in violence targeting gay men.
Sadr City residents opposed to homosexuality said in interviews that the presence of gay men became overt after the Iraqi army was allowed to move into the district in the spring of 2008, asserting control over a vast area formerly controlled by Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army.
"When the Iraqi army started coming here, this phenomenon started coming to our area," said Ali Abu Kara, 23, a mechanic who identified himself as a member of the Mahdi Army. "We felt very glad when those puppies were killed," he added, using a pejorative term for gay men.
Human Rights Watch said the Mahdi Army, which has been observing a cease-fire for more than a year, appears to have used the gay issue to build its image.
"It exploited morality for opportunistic purposes," the report said. "It aimed at popularity by targeting people few in Iraq would venture to defend."
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and American lawmakers have expressed concern about the reports of slayings.
"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," Patricia Butenis, then the charge d'affaires at the embassy, wrote in an April 22 letter to Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.).
Polis, who is openly gay, raised the issue with Iraqi and U.S. officials during a visit to Iraq this spring.
"There is no doubt that gay Iraqi men live in a constant state of terror," he said in an interview shortly after his visit. "That was not the case under Saddam Hussein's regime. And it's not the case in Jordan and Syria, where homosexuality is not accepted as it is in the West but people don't live in fear."
Long, the Human Rights Watch official, said reports of slayings and intimidation have become more infrequent in recent months as gay communities have gone underground and scores of gay men have fled their neighborhoods.
"The militias have run out of people to kill," he said.
Special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.