Life, Death and Being Gay in Iran

How do you save four men sentenced to hanging for sodomy?

Photo by Think Stock

The town of Choram is about as remote as it gets. Photos from the rural community in the Kohgiluyeh Province of Iran show mostly a barren, rocky landscape with a few roads leading through the largely undeveloped region. One could scarcely imagine that much goes on there. But Pink News reports this week that four men’s lives are about to change after a harsh verdict came down in the local court. Each has been sentenced to death for accusations of sodomy. And while Choram and these men may seem like a world away – and in many cases they are – their stories reverberate though the LGBT community everywhere today.

Javid Akbari, Saadat Arefi, Vahid Akbari and Houshmand Akbari were all found guilty of the crime, according to the country’s strict Shari’a law. They are scheduled to be hanged as soon as the next few days – even though being gay is not technically a crime as far as Iran’s criminal law is concerned. But the Human Rights Activist News Agency says that in recent months, same-sex acts have been aggressively monitored in small towns like this one throughout Iran. Several other men accused of the same crimes have been put to death in the past five months.

It’s estimated that in Iran, more than 4,000 gay men and lesbians have been executed since the Ayatollahs came into power in the late 70s, driving what had been a free-thinking society and its leaders into hiding, and in some cases, to other countries throughout Europe and into the U.S.

“I am horrified and saddened to have heard the news about these four men,” Mehri Jafari, an Iranian human rights lawyer in London, told Pink News. “Not only with regards to the execution which is about to take place, but the fact that [it] is beyond our control.”

He says that a lack of access to lawyers in the remote region, coupled with the harsh application of the very strict, very anti-gay religious law, are serious issues in the case. Another factor is how these cases are tried – almost always in closed sessions where it’s impossible for media and human rights organizations to access important information about whether the suspects are even gay, let alone guilty of the “crimes.” The Islamic laws do not differentiate between rape and homosexuality, opening the door for men and women having consensual gay sex to – at worst – be executed.

Just last month a young man was publicly hanged in the community, though local news agencies did not go into detail about the crime. But for these four men and their crimes are being used to send a message about being gay and lesbian – and that it will not be tolerated in Iran, a country whose president once insinuated that there are no gay people there. Interestingly, because the laws also dictate a separation of men and women throughout most of Iranian society, the likelihood that young people of the same gender would be experimenting sexually at a young age is increased considerably – similar, says many Iranian rights activists – as to what may happen in prison.

Human rights groups seem to agree that the message being sent not only impacts LGBT people in the Middle East – most of whom remain secretive about their lives – but also heterosexuals who may engage in sex outside of marriage. This, too, is punishable by death.

“The death penalty has failed to eradicate homosexuality from Iran but it was successful to force queer people into the closets,” says Gorji Marzban, chairperson of the Austrian-based Oriental Queer Organization. “Sooner or later any Islamic community is obliged to integrate queer people. We believe that Iranians should gain more gender equality and rights and wholly condemn such an archaic sentence to murder which is inherently unislamic!”

Several advocacy groups are rallying to save the men’s lives, including EveryOne, which is asking the United Nations and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation to intervene on their behalf and to force an end to the death penalty for such crimes.

“With all due respect, we Americans who stand for equality and respect for all humanity, including the men and women of Iran, request that you stop the proposed hanging of four Iranian men,” Gary Virginia of Amnesty International wrote in an open letter to several of the world’s leading rights organizations in hopes of appealing to EveryOne’s campaign. “We do not feel they received a fair trial and we feel this proposed action to kill your own brothers is not in agreement with the teachings of Islam, a religion that preaches peace, compassion and love. For any innocent life taken, whether one is alleged to be homosexual or acting on their personal sexual orientation by birth, it is a mark against your own soul for taking a life. You did not create life and you do not have the right to kill, especially by the brutal act of hanging.”

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  • Gigi Nikpour

    Although in recent years we hear of legalization of gay marriage in countries such as Spain, Mexico, Portugal, Brazil, etc., the international LGBT community is still struggling for their basic human rights.
    On June 17, 2011, South Africa submitted a request to the United Nations Human Rights Council requesting the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to draft a report detailing the situation of LGBT citizens worldwide to follow up and implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. The resolution passed 23 to 19 with the three abstentions being Burkina Faso, China, and Zambia. The report came out on December 2011, it documented violations of the rights of LGBT people, including hate crime, criminalization of homosexuality, and discrimination. High Commissioner Navi Pillay called for the repeal of laws criminalizing homosexuality; equitable ages of consent; comprehensive laws against discrimination based on sexual orientation; prompt investigation and recording of hate crime incidents; and other measures to ensure the protection of LGBT rights.
    However in countries like Iran none of this can be argued for or even considered because of the existing Islamic Penal Law, which were approved by the Islamic Consultancy Parliament on 30 July 1991 and ratified by the High Expediency Council on 28 November 1991. There are five books that make up the penal code. The sexual crimes are covered in the 2nd book: Haads [punishments specified in Shari’a] Part 1: Punishment for Adultery; Part 2: Punishment for Sodomy; and Part 3: Lesbianism.
    I will provide the details of all the relevant penal codes so you will see the severity of the laws. Bottom line, Iran’s problem is the convergence of religion and government, where non-secularism is at its worst!! These religious laws have no place in our modern world and these types of judicial practices are far from fair and just. And in the past 34 years under the Islamic Republic many Iranian citizens be it LGBT, women, children, Kurds, Baha’i, and Christian have been persecuted, imprisoned, and executed by this regime and it application of Islamic laws.
    Part 2: Punishment for Sodomy Chapter 1: Definition of Sodomy
    Article 108: Sodomy is sexual intercourse with a male.
    Article 109: In case of sodomy both the active and the passive persons will be condemned to its punishment.
    Article 110: Punishment for sodomy is killing; the Sharia judge decides on how to carry out the killing.
    Article 111: Sodomy involves killing if both the active and passive persons are mature, of sound mind and have free will.
    Article 112: If a mature man of sound mind commits sexual intercourse with an immature person, the doer will be killed and the passive one will be subject to Ta’azir of 74 lashes if not under duress.
    Article 113: If an immature person commits sexual intercourse with another immature person, both of them will be subject to Ta’azir of 74 lashes unless one of them was under duress.
    Chapter 2: Ways of proving sodomy in court
    Article 114: By confessing four lashes to having committed sodomy, punishment is established against the one making the confession.
    Article 115: A confession made less than four lashes (to having committed sodomy) does not involve
    punishment of “Had” but the confessor will be subject to Ta’azir (lesser punishments).
    Article 116: A confession is valid only if the confessor is mature, of sound mind, has will and intention.
    Article 117: Sodomy is proved by the testimony of four righteous men who might have observed it.
    Article 118: If less than four righteous men testify, sodomy is not proved and the witnesses shall be condemned to punishment for Qazf (malicious accusation).
    Article 119: Testimony of women alone or together with a man does not prove sodomy.
    Article 120: The Shariajudge may act according to his own knowledge which is derived through customary methods.
    Article 121: Punishment for Tafhiz (the rubbing of the thighs or buttocks) and the like committed by two men
    without entry, shall be hundred lashes for each of them.
    Article 122: If Tafhizand the like are repeated three lashes without entry and punishment is enforced after each time, the punishment for the fourth time would be death.
    Article 123: If two men not related by blood stand naked under one cover without any necessity, both of them will be subject to Ta’azir of up to 99 lashes.
    Article 124: If someone kisses another with lust, he will be subject to Ta’azir of 60 lashes.
    Article 125: If the one committing Tafhiz and the like or a homosexual man, repents before the giving of
    testimony by the witnesses, his punishment will be quashed; if he repents after the giving of testimony, the
    punishment will not be quashed.
    Article 126: If sodomy or Tafhizis proved by confession and thereafter he repents the Shariajudge may request
    the leader (Valie Amr) to pardon him.
    Part 3: Lesbianism
    Article 127: Mosaheqeh (lesbianism) is homosexuality of women by genitals.
    Article 128: The ways of proving lesbianism in court are the same by which the homosexuality (of men) is proved.
    Article 129: Punishment for lesbianism is hundred (100) lashes for each party.
    Article 130: Punishment for lesbianism will be established vis-a -vis someone who is mature, of sound mind, has free will and intention.
    Note: In the punishment for lesbianism there will be no distinction between the doer and the subject as well as a Muslim or non-Muslim.
    Article 131: If the act of lesbianism is repeated three lashes and punishment is enforced each time, death
    sentence will be issued the fourth time.
    Article 132: If a lesbian repents before the giving of testimony by the witnesses, the punishment will be
    quashed; if she does so after the giving of testimony, the punishment will not be quashed.
    Article 133: If the act of lesbianism is proved by the confession of the doer and she repents accordingly, the Sharia judge may request the leader (ValieAmr) to pardon her.
    Article 134: If two women not related by consanguinity stand naked under one cover without necessity, they
    will be punished to less than hundred (100) lashes (Ta’azir). In case of its repetition as well as the repetition of punishment, hundred (100) lashes will be hit the third time.