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Iran hangings: Chronicle of a manipulation

by Pedro Carmona Friday, Sep. 09, 2005 at 1:49 AM

A mislead gay and lesbian movement mobilizes against Iran at the height of conflict between the West and the Teheran regime.

In mid-July of this year a news item was circulated on the internet about two minors who were hanged in the Iranian city of Mashhad for having had homosexual relations. When, after some weeks, a more reliable version of the events was available demonstrating that Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, both above the age of 18, had been sentenced for the rape of a boy younger than themselves, many demonstrations had already been called for at Iranian embassies in various cities, and the Islamophobic ire of certain gay and lesbian groups had already been let loose.

[The original Spanish version of this article has appeared in the leftist newspaper Diagonal (Madrid), and was later published in several LGTB Latin American media, such as Notigay (Mexico) and Sentido G (Argentina). In order to counteract the false information which has been widely diffused about this case, the article was circulated in internet before its publication. The reproduction of the article in any other media, including webpages, is subject to a Creative Commons license ( as specified at the end of the text.]

The email which detonated the international reaction against Iran cited an Iranian student association as its source, another version cited a Teheran newspaper. In both cases, the news was dated July 19th and included images of the two boys as they walked to the gallows and as the noose was placed over their heads. At this time the election of the new anti-Western Iranian president was very recent, and the crisis between Teheran and various Western capitals (Washington, London, Paris and Berlin) over the Islamic Republic’s uranium enrichment plans was just about to reach its peak. The British association Outrage, known both for its continuous struggle for the rights of gays and lesbians as well as for its enthusiasm in denouncing any Muslim government, translated the news item and promoted its diffusion by internet. The item had zero echo in the mainstream press, which unfortunately was no surprise to gays and lesbians who almost never win the attention of the international news agencies, regardless of how bloody the cases of State homophobia may be in many countries.

This first version, which was rapidly propagated through the web, affirmed that the boys were under age and that they had been executed for “the mere fact of being gay.” The note included their declarations: “We didn’t know it was a crime, we thought it was something normal because everyone does it”. Within a few days, 200 people were demonstrating in front of the Iranian consulate in Milan, organized by ArciGay and other Italian gay and lesbian associations and human rights organizations. Outrage called for a demonstration in London. Emails and various gay and lesbian webpages and webforums solicited signatures and letters of condemnation directed to higher officials in Teheran, emphasizing the homophobic nature of the hanging. In successive versions new data was included: in addition to the death penalty imposed upon the young men, they had also been sentenced to 228 strokes of the whip and the total time they spent in prison was 14 months. Indymedia Beirut, in its “queer” section, called for several different forms of protest, although – perhaps suspecting where this all might be headed – it specified that “the campaign against these crimes shall never serve as a justification for the military invasion of Iran”.

The campaign was taken up in high places: the Nobel Prizewinner Shirin Ebadi, as well as, among others, the mayor of Florence and an important official in the Swedish government, encouraged the sending of protests to the Iranian diplomatic service, and these were followed shortly by the presidency of the European Union. The Dutch government paralyzed the expulsion of Iranians. Even two US congresspeople requested that Condoleeza Rice – whose government is infamously unfriendly to gays and lesbians in the US – investigate the case and clarify the events.

None of the above cited persons mentioned the fact that the sentence was motivated by the supposed homosexuality of the young men, but rather made reference to their (reported) age. Nevertheless, the credit for this repercussion undoubtedly goes to the campaign led by gays and lesbians in cyberspace: other recent sentences of underage persons by the Iranian regime – there has been at least one in 2005 and a minimum of five in 2004 – have had nothing near a reaction of this caliber.

The first documented investigations of the case appeared online around July 25th, signed by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International. These associations had consulted in situ with local human rights organizations and NGOs. Given this new data, they informed that in fact the death penalty was imposed upon these young men for the rape of a 13 year old boy who, according to some versions, they had forced at knifepoint and whose bicycle they had also stolen, and that both of the authors of this crime were above the age of 18 at the time of the hanging. At least one of them was over 18 at the time the crime was committed. The rest of the information from the first versions remained valid. The hanging of the two young men is still identified as unacceptable and disproportionate in these new versions, and the signatory associations call for letters of protest to Iranian governmental officials, but they center the case on grounds quite different from those of the first calls for condemnation. “It’s not a gay case”, says Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of IGLHRC, in a July 28th interview. In subsequent news follow-ups an Iranian lawyer declared that while homosexuality is illegal in Iran and in the penal code is punished by various kinds of sentences including the death penalty, this “is never applied in the case of homosexual relations between consenting adults.” Several reports indicate that in Iran women are considered legally adults at age 9 and men at age 15. Some human rights associations request that protests not focus only upon this case, as the abuses of the Iranian regime are many, and encourage protesters to direct the mobilization against all of these abuses. Between the date of the two young men’s death and August 2nd five more people have been hanged in Iran for various reasons, without the slightest echo in the international community.

No one denies that the homosexual character of the rape might have been used to augment the sentence, although no source cites any statements to this effect in the judicial sentence, and the possibility is mentioned in some reports as a mere hypothesis. Other sources indicate that another motive for judicial discrimination might have been the fact that Mahmoud and Ayaz both pertain to an ethnic minority: in a Persian majority country both of the hanged boys were Arabs. Their families come from the border area with Iraq and like thousands of other Iranian Arabs, were forced by the authorities to abandon their homes and to settle in Mashhad (in the northwestern part of the country) during the Iran-Iraq war, a policy the Iranian authorities maintained for fear that the Arab minority might ally with the neighboring country. Mashhad is “the holiest city of Iran”, very conservative, and it was in this city that the two young men were recently tried and executed.

In the first days of August, an article signed by the US journalist and activist Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg points to the National Council for the Iranian Resistance (NCRI), an association based in Paris, as the probable source of the false information. According to its webpage, this association advocates opposition to the regime of the Ayatollahs by any means necessary – including military intervention – in order to impose in Iran a Western-inspired system of elections and a free-market economic model, promoting capitalism and “foreign investments by those industrialized countries which wish to collaborate in the reconstruction of Iran”, measures which from a perspective of opposition to economic globalization we might translate into the complete dismantling of a country at the hands of Western multinationals. The NCRI has already chosen the person who will preside over the government of the “new Iran” during the “transition period before elections”, who is none other than the president of the association itself. In the political program of the CNRI the recognition of the state of Israel is also included.

At this moment the ball seemed to be in the court of Outrage, which had promoted the international protest. It would seem that the easiest thing to do would be to acknowledge that the initiative had been premature and to reorient their campaign. But despite the new information, the association did not change its position: “We will not give the benefit of the doubt to Iran. We have no reason to believe that this has been a case of rape rather than a consensual relation: perhaps the rape accusation is false and has been promoted by the mullahs in order to undermine the protest’s international support. We all know that it is a homophobic regime.” When asked which sources they relied upon in maintaining this attitude of suspicion, they unhesitatingly included ‘the Iranian opposition in exile’. Outrage maintained the call for a demonstration in front of the Iranian Embassy in London on August 11th, which was attended by around 100 people, while rallies were also celebrated in Dublin, San Francisco, Paris and Montpellier. The group Outrage has great prestige among gay and lesbian associations around the world thanks to its long history of struggle against homophobia. Nevertheless in recent years some of its most controversial actions in London have included attending a demonstration against the invasion of Iraq in order to request that US and British troops remain in Iraq “throughout the period of transition” and attending a demonstration of solidarity with Palestine with banners accusing the Arafat government of homophobia. Likewise, Outrage has periodically made strong statements against Islam as a whole.

In an interview with an Iranian gay activist conducted by Nikolai Aleksiv, of the group GayRussia, and circulated on internet during this period by the International Association of Gays and Lesbians (ILGA), the activist cites strong homophobic repression in Iran, exemplified by the closure of 15 gay websites and the non-existence of bars or nightclubs, but affirms that the regime no longer systematically persecutes sexual minorities. He adds, “There are cinemas and parks which serve as meeting places for gay men and though everyone knows that they are there no measures are taken for their eradication.” Sex change operations are legal and are explicitly supported by the government. The law continues to punish ‘reiterated homosexuality’ with the death penalty, but this code is not applied. In the more progressive media there are occasionally timid proposals to “respect different lifestyles”. The principal problem which gays and lesbians face in Iran is “lack of information.” The Iranian activist declares that he has not the slightest knowledge of the real motives for the death penalty applied to Mahmoud and Ayaz.

On August 3rd Faisal Alam, a US queer activist of Pakistani origins and the founder of the group Al-Fatiha (made up of US queer Muslims), argues in the magazine !Queer that the campaign to condemn Iran was organized without any effort to confirm the veracity of the information on the part of the groups which called for it, in contrast with the three major human rights organizations which advised of the imprecision of the information upon which the protests were based. Alam, who points to the forces of the Iranian opposition in exile as the promoters of the confusion, suggests the creation of an international network of groups promoting sexual liberty between the industrialized and “Third World” countries, in order to avoid misunderstandings of this kind and in order to have access to direct sources of information. This network would also serve to coordinate international protests in accord with what might be helpful in the countries where abuses occur – like Iran, in this case, where the campaign may have involuntarily provoked a worsening of institutional homophobia – and thus avoid that the effects of these campaigns be contrary to those intended. Alam frames his discussion of this manipulation in the context of increasing Islamophobia in Europe and North America, and of the “Axis of Evil” campaign of the Washington government. Finally, he asks how US public opinion can protest the death of two presumed minors when the US itself does the same; it is one of the only five countries in the world where this occurs. Of the 21 cases of capital punishment of minors in the world since 2000, 13 have taken place in the US.

One last nuance should be added to the initial versions of the events is the use of Western concepts to describe types of sexuality in other cultures. It is an error to speak of “two gays” to define two young Iranian men around 18 years of age who, if the present information is correct, imposed by intimidate a sexual relation upon a boy of 13, as this behavior is perceived as perfectly “heterosexual” within the dominant culture of that country as long as the perpetuators adopt the active role in the penetration. What is more, far from being a “gay” act, it could even be taken as a homophobic act on the part of the rapists, as it is the “manly man” who can, by violence, “fuck the faggot”. It is possible that the Western GLBT movement, in the name of the rights of gays and minors, is ironically demonstrating in favor of two young heterosexuals who chose as a victim this thirteen year old because he was or seemed gay.

At the time this article was written the sources continue to present certain confusion, and much is yet to be confirmed. The thesis that it was the Iranian regime which disguised a sentence for homosexuality as a “rape” case may yet prove true, though it has lost credibility in the last weeks. As time passes, however, the thesis defended by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and IGLHRC appears to be the most reliable. The anti-Iranian campaign which has been promoted by certain gay and lesbian groups has been based upon strongly biased information, incomplete and on occasions openly untrue. It certainly appears to be a premeditated exercise in misinformation. Likewise suspicious is the warm reception of these mobilizations on the part of conservative groups and parties which have never defended gay and lesbian rights, or which have even promoted openly homophobic initiatives, as is the case of the Republican Party in the US. Unfortunately, the protest campaign, which we should acknowledge at least to be ill-informed and misguided, is now unstoppable despite new data and clarifications. The petitions continue to circulate, maintaining the version that Mahmud and Ayaz were hanged “for the mere fact of being gay”. It is comprehensible that our rage at the continued homophobic abuses we see lead us to react immediately and without too much consideration; but these reactions might convert us, while we believe ourselves to be struggling for the liberation of gays and lesbians, into mere puppets of greater interests.

Around the same dates as the events narrated in this article was the death of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, whose regime is an ally of the US and other Western countries. In Spain, as in other neighboring countries, there was an official day of mourning (which in the municipality of Marbella where the monarch habitually vacationed was extended to three days). The obituaries in the European and North American press hailed him, avoiding any condemnation of the dictatorial regime he presided over and silencing its horrible human rights abuses. No media mentioned the decapitations of homosexuals which frequently take place in the public squares of his kingdom. As recently as the 14th of March a couple of men were decapitated for “living in sin and socially exposing their homosexual relation.” Between the 9th and 20th of April of this year, 202 homosexuals and transsexuals were arrested in two different gay parties and were sentenced to prison terms of up to two years and whippings which varied between 200 and 2600 strokes. The prison terms are calculated in order that the prisoners may receive all the indicated lashes at a rate of 15 per day, interrupted by resting periods in order to avoid the prisoner’s death. Today, while you are reading this, they may be receiving those lashes. No gay or lesbian group has initiated such an international campaign to denounce these facts.

NOTE: The author of this article is a gay activist. He is opposed to the death penalty and is aware that Iran is among the most homophobic regimes in the world, and denounces that fact. In the 1990s, the author participated in an international campaign similar to the one analyzed in this article, at that time directed against the Cuban regime. The campaign was much later discovered to have been orchestrated in Florida. While that campaign was taking place, death squads presumably trained by the Pentagon killed gays, lesbians and transsexuals in almost all the other countries of Latin America; these cases were only revealed years later. The campaign against Cuba, motivated by facts such as the eviction of gay parties, became so powerful that the US group Human Rights Watch published a report which affirmed that “there is no grave or emergency situation for the gay and lesbian population of Cuba.” Various human rights reports included the names of 12 Latin American countries in which “there are extremely grave situations of homophobia”, including frequent assassinations committed by ultra-rightwing groups to the passivity of the authorities, “to which there has been no reaction whatsoever on the part of international activist groups.”

Translation: Maggie.


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