Lack of funds may force group to return imperiled gay Iraqis to the streets
Julie A. Weisberg
Iraq’s lesbian, gay and transgendered residents have become an all-too frequent target of that occupied nation’s lawlessness. Now they face the possibility of losing the lone organization that has sought to protect them from violence.
Friends of Iraqi LGBT, an all-volunteer human rights organization currently based in London, runs a series of safe houses in Iraq for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Iraqis who have been targeted for persecution -- including beatings, imprisonment and even death -- by militant Shia death squads that roam the war-torn nation’s streets.
Last year, five members of the group were taken into custody by Iraqi police during a raid on Iraqi LGBTs headquarters in Baghdad. So far, only one of the five has been accounted for.
Amjad, 27, was found dead and mutilated in the same area three days later.
Iraqi LGBT was formed early last year after reports of homophobic violence in Iraq spiked. The organization provides financial assistance to LGBT individuals in particularly dangerous areas of Iraq, allowing them to move to relatively safer parts of the country, or seek refuge in neighboring countries.
In all, the group has assisted some 40 gay Iraqi asylum seekers in the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as Sweden, Germany, Canada, Holland, Lithuania, Romania, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
But now Iraqi LGBT’s life-saving work is in jeopardy, as the organization is facing a critical shortage of funding. Ali Hili, the group's founder and coordinator, spoke to Raw Story in a recent phone interview from London.
According to Hili, 34, the cost of funding a safe house -- which serves 10 to 12 people at a time -- is about $1,800 a month: $800 for rent, usually paid three months in advance; $400 for the salaries of two armed guards for each house, an essential part of securing each facility; and $600 per month for gas, fuel for electricity generators, food, clean drinking water and hygienic supplies.
To put that in perspective: Halliburton's US-Iraq contracts passed $10 billion in 2004 -- with $10 billion Hili could operate 462,000 shelters for a year.
Currently, the majority of the group’s work is funded through private donations and small grants from other non-governmental organizations.
Complicating the situation, Hili said, is that the need for Iraqi LGBT’s services and assistance has continued to increase while financial resources have dwindled. Unless more financing can be raised quickly, the group’s safe houses will have to close their doors, possibly as early as the end of this month, putting dozens of vulnerable people at risk of execution.
Hili said although he is hopeful that some of his recent grant requests will come through in time, Iraqi LGBT’s financial implosion is imminent.
“Until we get a stable source of funds, the group will always struggle,” Hili said.
2005 fatwa kindled anti-gay violence
Since the US invasion of Iraq, gays and transgendered people have suffered intense persecution. This targeted violence has been documented and acknowledged in recent State Department and United Nations reports.
Violence against gays has intensified sharply since late 2005, when Iraq's leading Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a fatwa, or religious decree, which declared that gays and lesbians should be “killed in the worst, most severe way,” Hili said.
Since then, LGBT people have been specifically targeted by the Madhi Army, the militia of fundamentalist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, as well as other Shia militant death squads. The Badr Organization, the military arm of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and one of the leading political forces in Baghdad’s ruling coalition, has been particularly active.
Several months ago, two lesbians working with Iraqi LGBT were assassinated in the safe house they were running in Najaf, along with a young boy the women had rescued from the local sex industry.
"These people have given their lives," Peter Tatchel of British gay rights group Outrage! said of Iraqi LGBT's work during a phone interview last week. "And the group's members inside Iraq have managed to save lives."
Hili said that in addition to the raid on Iraqi LGBTs headquarters last year, there are other credible reports of gay men being arrested and executed by the Iraqi police.
Although British and Canadian news organizations have reported on the persecution of Iraqi gays, the issue has largely been ignored by mainstream US media.
Veteran investigative journalist Doug Ireland was the first to break the story for an American publication, GayCityNews, last year. Ireland has continued to file reports on the increasingly precarious situation for Iraq’s gays.
"Every LGBT person is in danger"
The chaotic situation in Iraq makes it impossible to document precisely how many gay, transgender and lesbian individuals have been killed as a result of their sexuality or gender expression. But Hili said his group has specific knowledge of hundreds of cases of homophobic persecutions. Every LGBT person in Iraq is in danger, he said.
“Some people need a permanent settlement, while others could be moved to outside Iraq,” Hili said. “We have to study each on a case by case situation.”
Last month, Iraqi LGBT -- working along with British gay human rights group Outrage! -- helped two gay Iraqis secure asylum in the UK after the men narrowly escaped assassination attempts by Shia Islamist death squads.
Both men had their initial applications for asylum turned down last year by the British Home Office, despite providing authorities with strong evidence of homophobic persecution and death threats, according to Tatchell. But they appealed the Home Office’s decision and won.
The Home Office often turns down asylum requests on the grounds that it does not recognize homophobic persecution as a legitimate and valid grounds for asylum under the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, Tatchell stated.
“The United States and European governments have hidden behind this, and used it as an excuse to refuse refugee status to individuals facing persecution in places like Iraq,” Tatchel said. “Lesbian and gay asylum seekers have a particularly hard time.”
Many other groups in Iraq -- particularly women -- have also faced daily threats of violence and human rights abuses at the hands of the roaming militias since the beginning of the occupation, Tatchel added.
“I fear it may take many more ghastly homophobic persecutions, and possibly a change in the government, before the current widespread refusal of asylum claims is reversed," Tatchel said.
Raw Story’s attempts to contact the British Home Office for comment on the men’s cases went unanswered.
When asked if US officials had put pressure on the Iraqi government to crack down on the escalating violence against gay and transgendered people, a State Department spokesperson referred Raw Story to its 2006 report on human rights abuses in Iraq.
“We warned that even before Saddam’s overthrow the repression of lesbian and gay Iraqis would gradually intensify. ... What we failed to realize was the rapidity of the rise of Islamist extremism,” Tatchel said.
In addition to its work with the gay and transgendered communities, Iraqi LGBT has also provided anti-retroviral drugs to HIV+ men and women in desperate need of the medications.
Since the occupation, HIV/AIDS patients have been killed simply because they have the disease, Hilli said.
“They have been doomed ... just killed because [the Islamist militas] see them as prostitutes, and immoral sexually,” Hili said. “So, HIV/AIDS patients can’t declare their situation to the authorities because they will get killed.”
Hili himself has faced frequent death threats, even in London where he is now living.
“I am taking precautions because of what I am doing,” he said, adding that the London authorities have told him not to make public appearances and to keep a low profile, to protect his safety.
“I am doing everything on the Internet now,” he said. “But I have to do something to help... I do passionately love Iraq. I miss it every day. I wish I could go back every minute.”
Hili added that his group’s work and success stories have given him “an energy to carry on, to go ahead and do what I am doing,” despite threats to his safety and the difficulty he has had keeping the organization afloat financially.
“I am trying everything to keep these safe houses going ... and I’ll try more,” he said. “We have a dream that one day our country will be safe, stable and secure. ... I can’t give up.”