Page last updated at 02:06 GMT, Saturday, 18 April 2009 03:06 UK

Iraqi gay men face 'lives of hell'

By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad

Mobile video of gay abuse
Mobile footage of gay men being abused is being widely circulated in Iraq

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 gay men 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 gay men throughout the city and in some other parts of the country also live in fear.


Watch Jim Muir's report


The phenomenon seems mainly to be affecting Shia neighbourhoods, where a number of clerics have given sermons seen as homophobic incitement.

Mobile video of police abusing a hermaphrodite
This footage shows Iraqi police molesting a person with female and male genitalia

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 gay men.

"The campaign started in 2004, but now it's very much worse," said a Baghdad homosexual 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 homosexual 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.

Clerical cue

Gay activists believe the campaign emerged as police, militias and tribes took their cue from the clerics.

Shaikh Sadeq al-Zair, Baghdad
It's a phenomenon which has to be fought, but through treatment
Shaikh Sadeq al-Zair
Shia cleric

But officials in all categories deny that they support the persecution or killing of homosexuals.

"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 fought, 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 homosexuals should be killed.

But they are being killed, and the Shia militias are among the most oft-cited suspects.

Family honour

In some cases, it is believed that their own families are killing homosexuals, out of shame for their behaviour.

Brigadier Diah Sahi, Baghdad
Brigadier Diah Sahi says Iraq has no policy of arresting gay men

"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.

Homosexuals 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 gay men 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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