Sunday, August 21, 2005

HRC criticized over Iran death penalty

HRC criticized over Iran death penalty


By ELIZABETH WEILL-GREENBERG
Friday, August 19, 2005


WASHINGTON — Protests persist against the executions of two teenagers in Iran, as condemnations broaden to include the use of the death penalty against children.

In mid-July photos of two Iranian teenagers awaiting execution, Ayaz Marhoni and Mahomoud Asgari, surfaced on the Internet. Gay rights groups Outrage and the Human Rights Campaign quickly condemned the executions and claimed the boys were killed for being gay. HRC urged the State Department to investigate the murders.

However, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, were not able to find evidence corroborating the claims the boys were killed for being gay. Instead, their research had uncovered, to that point, that the boys were charged with and executed for sexually assaulting a 13-year old boy at knifepoint. Scott Long, director of Human Rights Watch’s gay, program, said they based their findings on journalists and human rights workers in Iran.

Gay rights groups and human rights organizations continue to sift through conflicting accounts of the executions, trying to distinguish amongst myth, rumor and fact. It appears that reports claiming the boys were executed for being gay originated, in part, with incorrect English translations of an Iranian Student News Agency report. The translations mistakenly claimed the article did not mention sexual assault, which it did, according to Hadi Ghaemi, Human Rights Watch’s Iran researcher. .

Outrage, a British gay rights group that first brought attention to the case, maintains it is likely the boys were executed for being gay.

“[The Iranian government] has previously lied to justify public executions,” said Outrage’s Ramzi Isalam in a statement. “[The death penalty] is barbaric and should be abolished.”

Afdhere Jama, the editor of Huriyah, a U.S. based magazine for gay Muslims, claims he has information from anonymous sources inside Iran who say the boys were lovers and that was the reason for the execution. He said the Blade could not speak with his sources and he could not identify them by their true names because it would endanger their lives.

Long said that Human Rights Watch is looking into Jama’s claims and hopes to speak directly with his sources.

“We’re waiting to get information we can actually check out,” Long said.

Ghaemi added: “As long as those witnesses are not available, that dimension remains from his point of view.”

HRW is also investigating rumors that two Iranian men will be executed for homosexuality at the end of August, Long said.

“The information [on the new executions] comes from an Iranian group in Europe,” wrote Ghaemi in an e-mail to the Blade. “I have talked to them and they refuse to discuss any details of who their sources inside Iran are or to put me in contact with them. I have asked my own contacts in Iran to see if they can find any information on it.”

Doug Ireland, a widely respected journalist who has been following both cases closely, says it is likely the rape charges against Marhoni and Asgari were trumped up.

“The Iranian scholars I have spoken to have been skeptical to a huge degree of the rape charge,” Ireland said in a telephone interview with the Blade. “There is a history of inventing charges to fit the regime’s agenda.”

In addition to conversations with Iranian scholars and exiles, Ireland said he has corresponded with the editor of an underground gay Iranian magazine, who asked Ireland not to disclose his identity or the name of his publication to protect his safety.

“In the wake of the story about the hanging of the two teens going global the atmosphere of anti-gay repression and surveillance has considerably heightened in Iran,” said Ireland. As investigations continue, protests were staged last week in London, San Francisco and Paris to condemn the executions of the boys and, more broadly,

Iran’s lethal criminalization of homosexuality. In Iran, homosexual intercourse between two men is punishable by death and homosexual acts that do not involve intercourse are punishable by 100 lashes, according to Ghaemi.

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom said in a statement that he was “outraged and appalled” that Iran executed two boys for their “alleged sexual orientation.”

In light of the executions, the Netherlands and Sweden have stopped sending gay asylum seekers back to Iran.

State Department spokesperson Noel Clay told the Blade that they were not planning to issue a statement condemning the hangings because the circumstances are unknown. When asked if the department would condemn the executions because one of the boys was a minor when the alleged crime was committed, Clay refused to answer.

Whatever the reasons for the teenagers’ execution, many have noted, their state sanctioned murder highlights Iran’s human rights record. However, many have said that the international outrage on Iran’s treatment of gays applies a double standard to Western and Muslim countries.

“We simply cannot be asking the world to point a flashlight on the recent executions in Iran, for example, and not be willing to put our own western countries under the same scrutiny,” wrote Kim Vance in an editorial for Xtra!, a Canadian magazine about gay issues. Vance is co-director of the Canadian gay rights group, ARC International.

Unfortunately, that “flashlight” exposes human rights violations, like the death penalty and torture, here at home.

“It should also be pointed out that the U.S. continually has violated international norms of humane treatment of prisoners both in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in Guantanamo Bay and that the Bush Administration has been hostile to full equality for gay and lesbian people,” Ireland said.

Gay rights activists have also criticized HRC, which does not have a position on the death penalty, for so narrowly addressing capital punishment. “Would we in the queer community have responded with the same outrage if the headline had read, ‘Two Teenagers Executed in Iran’?” Vance wrote.

HRC spokesperson Jay Smith Brown told the Blade that they “don’t believe [capital punishment] to be specific to GLBT issues.”

Many gay rights activists have taken issue with HRC’s myopic view.

“The narrow single issue focus of the institutional gay community in the U.S. rarely permits placing the gay issue in the larger human rights context,” said Ireland.

Many human rights organizations, including gay rights groups like Outrage, have condemned the death penalty because it is a human rights violation and they argue is disproportionately used against minorities and the poor. In recent years, more domestic groups have also joined the call for abolition as many condemned convicts are exonerated.

The U.S. stands alone in the West in its use of the death penalty. From 1999 to 2003, the U.S. was listed among the top five countries in the world in executions.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the most executions for those years occurred in: China (6,687), Iran (604), Saudi Arabia (403), the United States (385) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (350.) And, until a Supreme Court ruling in March of this year, the U.S. permitted the execution of juveniles.

Bill Dobbs, a gay rights and anti-death penalty activist based in New York, is concerned that HRC’s comments on the Iranian case could actually set back the domestic abolitionist movement.

“Anyone should be horrified at what HRC has done here,” Dobbs said, referring to HRC Communications Director Steven Fisher’s statement that they would be relieved if the teens were not executed for being gay. “Their name is highly disingenuous.”

Dobbs pointed out that capital punishment is used against “stigmatized individuals,” including gays, transgender people, bisexuals and lesbians. There are even some recent U.S. cases where a prosecutor has successfully exploited a person’s sexual orientation to persuade a jury to vote for death.

“Given that our history is being burned at the stake and killed for sex practices, the death penalty is most definitely something that has got to concern those of us who are gay,” he said. “The failure of the GLBT groups to fight hard against capital punishment is a failure for them to advocate on behalf of the GLBT community.”

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