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.”