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OpEd: Holding Iran accountable for violating human rights

by Paula Ettlebrick
Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (pictured) was present in mid-September at the largest gathering ever of world leaders at the United Nations. Not one question was raised about his country’s continued violations of international human rights law. Iran has signed both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Both forbid the execution of any person under the age of 18 for any crime. Yet, there has been a rash of public executions in Iran that have involved youth or were related to sexuality and gender identity.

We know from Iranian lesbian and gay people among us in many parts of the world, that treatment of gays and lesbians in Iran is horrific. For years, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission has collected information about the conditions faced by LGBT people and people with HIV in 144 countries around the world. Among our findings in Iran are:

• Nov. 12, 1995: Mehdi Barazandeh is condemned to death by the Supreme Court of Iran for acts of adultery and the “obscene act of sodomy.” The court’s decree is carried out by stoning.

• Jan. 24, 2002: Le Monde reported that: “Between March 2001 and Dec. 2001, twelve men, aged between 14 and 57, have also been stoned for homosexuality and sodomy…Sixteen men were killed by stoning between March 2000 and March 2001 and ten between March 1999 and March 2000.”

• May 13, 2003: Agence France Press quoted a judiciary official as stating: “An Iranian was beheaded in public and eight others hanged for offences ranging from rape and murder to kidnapping women and girls, homosexual acts, sodomy and fornication.”

A well-accepted principle of international law is that sodomy, even where criminalized, is not a crime appropriate for the death penalty. But the fear of punishment or death for gay men in Iran is so great that at least two Iranians who claimed to be gay and were denied asylum in the U.K. killed themselves:

• April 20, 2005: The Daily Telegraph reported on the death in London of Iranian Hussein Nasseri: “A [gay] asylum seeker shot himself in the head at a children’s play center after his appeal to remain in the U.K. was rejected, an inquest heard yesterday.”

• Aug. 21, 2005: The Observer in London, reported that: “In September 2003, Israfil Shiri, a destitute Iranian asylum seeker, died six days after pouring petrol over his body and setting himself alight in the offices of a refugee charity in Manchester. He had fled Iran after the authorities obtained documented evidence of his sexuality.”

Under the Islamic Penal Code adopted in Iran, lesbians fare no better than gay men. Though documentation of punishments has not been as specific, the law provides that, “Punishment for lesbianism (Mosahqeh) is one hundred lashes for each party…If the act of lesbianism is repeated three times and punishment is enforced each time, [a] death sentence will be issued the fourth time…If two women not related by consanguinity stand naked under one cover without necessity, they will be punished to less than one hundred lashes.”

Stories, laws and practices in Iran point to some of the most egregious human rights violations based on sexuality. What is it that the LGBT community can do to bring these violations to light, to move our governments to respond? The U.S. government has successfully whipped up so much anti-Muslim, anti-Arab hostility to justify the war on Iraq, that many Americans find it hard to distinguish among people from the Middle East. They think of all of them as enemies, just at a time when the most important thing we can do is to engage with Iranians who are committed to human rights — both LGBT and non-LGBT.

We must reach out to and work with our Iranian colleagues, both in the country and outside, and help move opinion leaders and international human rights experts to demand of Iran that it honor its commitments under international law to suspend use of the death penalty.

We need to engage world leaders to speak out against imposing the death penalty everywhere in the world in cases involving sexuality — whether consensual or not, since in either case, the punishment is certainly disproportionate to the crime.

President Ahmadinejad should have been among the first to receive this message at the U.N. He did not. World leaders did agree, however, to create a new U.N. Human Rights Council. IGLHRC is calling for governments of the world to use this space so that a country like Iran can be called to account for its pattern of human rights violations.

— Paula L. Ettelbrick is executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

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