Jim Muir / BBC News – 2009-04-18 00:26:41
BAGHDAD (April 17, 2009) — Grainy footage taken on a mobile phone and widely distributed around Baghdad shows a terrified young Iraqi boy cowering and whimpering as men with a stick force him to strip, revealing women’s underwear beneath his dishdasha (Arab robe).
“Why are you dressed as a girl?” roars one of the men, brandishing his stick as the youth removes his brassiere.
The sobbing boy, who appears to be about 12, tries to explain that his family made him do it to earn money, as they have no other source of income.
The scene, apparently filmed in a police post, reinforced reports of a campaign against gays in Iraq which activists say has claimed the lives of more than 60 since December.
In the latest manifestation of the campaign, posters have appeared on walls in the poor Shia suburb of Sadr City in eastern Baghdad, listing alleged homosexuals by name and threatening to kill them. Those named have gone underground, while gays throughout the city and in some other parts of the country also live in fear.
The phenomenon seems mainly to be affecting Shia neighbourhoods, where a number of clerics have given sermons seen as homophobic incitement.
In Sadr City, Sheikh Jassem al-Mutairi used his Friday sermon to attack what he called “new private practices by some men who dress like women, and are effeminate”. He called on families to prevent their youngsters from following such a lifestyle.
Police sources say that in the past month alone, the bodies of six young men have been found in Sadr City, some with placards labelling them “perverts” or “puppies”, the derogatory Iraqi term for gays.
“The campaign started in 2004, but now it’s very much worse,” said a Baghdad gay who goes by the name of Surour. He talked to the BBC on condition of anonymity.
“They kill the gays, they beat them up… I have a lot of friends that have been killed – 15 or 16, something like that, too much.”
“Life has become like hell, believe me, like hell. Whenever I go anywhere, there are checkpoints, and when they see us, they know about us, they detain us and question us, and they want to touch me, yes, to molest me.”
As though to underline the accusation, another piece of mobile phone footage circulating in Baghdad shows a group of uniformed police harassing a hermaphrodite they have caught at a checkpoint, obliging him to expose his well-developed breasts which are then gleefully manhandled and kissed.
One Iraqi gay who fled the country last week said he was detained for three weeks and beaten until a bribe of $5,000 (£3,380) raised by friends bought his release.
Gay activists believe the campaign emerged as police, militias and tribes took their cue from the clerics. But officials in all categories deny that they support the persecution or killing of gays.
“The Interior Ministry has no policy of arresting gays just for being gay,” said Brigadier Diah Sahi, head of the Iraqi police’s Criminal Investigation Department. “There’s no law to justify it, unless they commit indecent acts in public.”
“It’s a psychological problem in any case. Arresting people and putting them in jail isn’t going to change anything,” he added.
A Shia cleric in central Baghdad’s Kerrada district, Shaikh Sadeq al-Zair, said he saw many young men dressing more effeminately than women. “It’s a phenomenon which has to be combated, but through treatment,” he said.
“If these people are sick, they should be given therapy. But violence is rejected by all religions, especially by Islam, which is a religion of mercy.”
A spokesman of the Sadrist movement – followers of the militant young cleric Moqtada Sadr whose Mehdi Army militia used to rule Sadr City – also said that there was nothing in Islam to say that gays should be killed. But they are being killed, and the Shia militias are among the most oft-cited suspects.
In some cases, it is believed that their own families are killing gays, out of shame for their behaviour. “In Sadr City, four of those who died were killed by their own families, because they think it is better for their name, for their honour,” said Surour.
Gays admit that their problem is as much with their own society and families as with the authorities, police or militias. But the Iraqi government appears to be slow to take the lead in discouraging the homophobic campaign.
Amnesty International, which believes at least 25 alleged gays have been killed in Baghdad in the last few weeks, wrote to the Iraqi government last week seeking “urgent and concerted action” to bring the culprits to justice and protect the gay community.
The appeal has so far brought no response, and the government has yet to comment on the killings or take any visible action to combat them.
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