The 67-page report, “‘They Want Us Exterminated’: Murder, Torture, Sexual Orientation and Gender in Iraq,” documents a wide-reaching campaign of extrajudicial executions, kidnappings, and torture of gay men that began in early 2009. The killings began in the vast Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, a stronghold of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, and spread to many cities across Iraq. Mahdi Army spokesmen have promoted fears about the “third sex” and the “feminization” of Iraq men, and suggested that militia action was the remedy. Some people told Human Rights Watch that Iraqi security forces have colluded and joined in the killing.
“Iraq’s leaders are supposed to defend all Iraqis, not abandon them to armed agents of hate,” said Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “Turning a blind eye to torture and murder threatens the rights and life of every Iraqi.”
Silence and stigma surrounding sexuality and gender in Iraq make placing a precise figure on the number killed almost impossible, but indications are that hundreds of men may have died.
One man told Human Rights Watch that militiamen kidnapped and killed his partner of 10 years in April: “It was late one night, and they came to take my partner at his parents’ home. Four armed men barged into the house, masked and wearing black. They asked for him by name; they insulted him and took him in front of his parents. … He was found in the neighborhood the day after. They had thrown his corpse in the garbage. His genitals were cut off and a piece of his throat was ripped out.”
The killers invade homes and pick people up in the street, witnesses and survivors said, interrogating them before murdering them to extract names of other potential victims. They practice grotesque tortures, including gluing men’s anuses shut as punishment. Human Rights Watch spoke to doctors who said that hospitals and morgues have received dozens of mutilated bodies, living and dead.
“Murder and torture are no way to enforce morality,” said Rasha Moumneh, Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These killings point to the continuing and lethal failure of Iraq’s post-occupation authorities to establish the rule of law and protect their citizens.”
Consensual homosexual conduct between adults is not a criminal offense under Iraqi law. Although many militias in Iraq claim to be enforcers of Islamic law, the Human Rights Watch report also shows how the killings – committed without evidence or trial, on the basis of prejudice and whim – violate standards in Sharia law for legality, proof, and privacy.
International human rights law forbids all forms of torture and inhuman treatment and guarantees the right to life, including the right to effective state protection. In its 1994 decision in the landmark case of Toonen v. Australia, the United Nations Human Rights Committee held that the protections against unequal treatment in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) extend to sexual orientation as a protected status.
The report also documents how fears that Iraqi men’s masculinity is under threat propel the killings as much as prejudices about sexuality. Many men told Human Rights Watch that their parents or brothers have threatened them with honor killings because their “unmanly” behavior threatens the reputation of the family or tribe. In a provision left over from the Saddam Hussein era, Iraqi law allows mitigated penalties for crimes committed “with honorable motives.” This exception encourages gender-based violence.
Many Iraqis who fear being attacked have sought safety in surrounding countries, but those countries are no safe haven, the report says. Consensual homosexual conduct is criminalized in most of these countries, and prejudice based on sexual orientation and gender identity fosters violence and discrimination in all of them. Human Rights Watch urges the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), as well as governments that accept Iraqi refugees, to offer rapid resettlement to these endangered people.
Accounts from the report (all names are aliases, to protect the speakers)
“[The killers’] measuring rod to judge people is who they have sex with. It is not by their conscience, it is not by their conduct or their values, it is who they have sex with. The cheapest thing in Iraq is a human being, a human life. It is cheaper than an animal, than a pair of used-up batteries you buy on the street. Especially people like us. … I can’t believe I’m here talking to you because it’s all just been repressed, repressed, repressed. For years it’s been like that – if I walk down the street, I would feel everyone pointing at me. I feel as if I’m dying all the time. And now this, in the last month – I don’t understand what we did to deserve this. They want us exterminated. All the violence and all this hatred: the people who are suffering from it don’t deserve it.”
– Hamid, in Iraq, April 24, 2009
“We’ve been hearing about this, about gay men being killed, for more than a month. It’s like background noise now, every day. The stories started spreading in February about this campaign against gay people by the Mahdi Army: everyone was talking about it, I was hearing about it from my straight friends. In a coffee shop in Karada, on the streets in Harithiya [Baghdad neighborhoods], they were talking about it. I didn’t worry at first. My friends and I, we look extremely masculine, there is nothing visibly “feminine” about us. None of us ever, ever believed this would happen to us. But then at the end of March we heard on the street that 30 men had been killed already.”
– Idris, in Iraq, April 24, 2009
“They did many things to us, the Mahdi Army. … They kidnapped [my partner] for six days. He will not talk about what they did to him. There were bruises on his side as if he was dragged on the street. They did things to him he can’t describe, even to me. They wrote in the dust on the windshield of his car: ‘Death to the people of Lot and to collaborators.’ They sent us veiled threats in text messages: ‘You are on the list.’ They sent him a piece of paper in an envelope, to his home: there were three bullets wrapped in plastic, of different size. The note said, ‘Which one do you want in your heart?’ … I want to be a regular person, lead a normal life, walk around the city, drink coffee on the street. But because of who I am, I can’t. There is no way out.”
– Mohammad, in Iraq, April 21, 2009
“At 10 a.m., [Ministry of Interior officers] cuffed my hands behind my back. Then they tied a rope around my legs, and they hung me upside down from a hook in the ceiling, from morning till sunset. I passed out. I was stripped down to my underwear while I hung upside down. They cut me down that night, but they gave me no water or food. Next day, they told me to put my clothes back on and they took me to the investigating officer. He said, ‘You like that? We’re going to do that to you more and more, until you confess.’ Confess to what? I asked. ‘To the work you do, to the organization you belong to, and that you are a tanta’ [queen]. For days, there were severe beatings, and constant humiliation and insults. … It was the same form of abuse every day. They beat me all over my body; when they had me hanging upside down, they used me like a punching bag. … They used electric prods all over my body. Then they raped me. Over three days. The first day, 15 of them raped me; the second day, six; the third day, four. There was a bag on my head every time.”
– Nuri, on April 15 and 27, 2009