Brennan Linsley/AP
Iraqi Shiite Muslims march in support of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who called for the death of
homosexuals in the “worst, most severe way" in 2005.

Jailing of an Iraqi Doctor Damages Press Freedom and Gay Rights

December 05, 2008 05:01 PM
by Christopher Coats
An Iraqi doctor was arrested and sentenced for writing an article about the effects of gay sex, spotlighting the fragile state of both gay rights and journalism in the still volatile country.

Taboo Subject Lands Doctor in Jail

Jailed for six months for an article he wrote in April 2007, Dr. Adel Hussein was accused of violating “public custom” according to a 1969 statute.

However, both the statute and the punishment have been ruled as outdated according to a law passed earlier this year, banning both imprisonment for journalism and any recognition of violations of “public custom” as grounds for arrest.

Responding to the arrest, the Committee to Protect Journalists said, “A judge of all people should know that ignorance of the law is no excuse,” adding that, “This is the second time in a month that a court in Iraqi Kurdistan has sent a journalist to prison in violation of the new press law.”

Journalist Shwan Dawdi was imprisoned on charges of defamation against a former judge, but was released after nine days.

Background: Homophobia and fear

Still, the case of Dr. Hussein reflects the often dangerously taboo subject of homosexuality in Iraq.

While technically protected under Iraqi law, homosexuality remains a controversial and sometimes deadly subject across the country.

CNN reported extensively on the threats posed to homosexuals in Iraq, including kidnapping, rape and murder; a situation that has deteriorated since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

“Ridiculed under Hussein, many now find themselves the targets of violence, according to humanitarian officials,” CNN reported in July.

The environment for gay, lesbian and transgender Iraqis took a decidedly dangerous turn in October 2005 when Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani answered a question on his official Web site by calling for the death of homosexuals in the “worst, most severe way.”

Response: An escalation of violence since fall of Saddam

In the months and years that have followed, The Badr Corps, a military arm of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, began targeting homosexuals for abuse that sometimes led to death.

Echoing the dangerous state of affairs for homosexuals in Iraq, a UN report found that, “Armed Islamic groups and militias have been known to be particularly hostile toward homosexuals, frequently and openly engaging in violent campaigns against them.”

Despite an estimated 430 deaths since 2003, Newsweek found the subject of homosexual persecution as difficult to discuss in Iraq as homosexuality itself.

“Virtually no government officials would sit for an interview. And the United Nations human-rights office, which has a big presence in Iraq, dodged the subject like a mine field,” Lennox Samuels wrote in an August 2008 report.

Largely ignoring requests for interviews and information, Newsweek reported that officials in Iraq insisted that there were far more pressing issues than persecution of homosexuals in the country at the moment.

This environment of persecution and danger has forced many homosexuals into a life of isolation, retreating to secret safe houses to escape a surge in violent religious extremism, according to The New York Times.

Related Topic: A London lifeline

Many gay Iraqis living in fear or seclusion have been helped by a London-based support group called Iraqi LGBT, run by Ali Hili, an Iraqi-born man who traces the surge in violence against gays to Sistani’s 2005 remarks.

The organization has set up a series of safe houses throughout the country, but has not been entirely successful thanks to financial restraints and critics who view their efforts as frivolous in light of Iraq’s other problems.

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