BAR: U.S. Protection of LGBT Iraqis Questioned
Kudos to longtime LGBT global reporter Heather Cassell of the Bay Area Reporter for her comprehensive article today about the plight of gay Iraqis and whether the United States government is doing enough to help them. Big thanks to BAR editor Cynthia Laird for giving this story front-page placement in the paper's print edition today.
(Bodies of dead gay Iraqis lie on a street in Baghdad. Credit: Associated Press.)
Here are excerpts from the story and links to the referenced UK and US government files obtain through FOIA requests are at the end:
A dozen years after the U.S. invaded Iraq, the government is reluctant to let LGBT Americans know what it was doing to protect gay Iraqis at the height of the violence against them.
The U.S. government isn't willing to disclose much information about what it was doing to help LGBT Iraqis during the invasion of the Middle Eastern country, according to a heavily redacted report issued five and a half years after it was requested.
The reports confirm the rash of murders of gay Iraqis at the hands of militias but debunked other claims that more than 100 gay Iraqis were sitting on death row.
The Bay Area Reporter was provided with the government reports from the United Kingdom and the U.S. The reports were obtained under Freedom of Information Act requests that were filed with both countries in June 2009 by Michael Petrelis, a gay San Francisco activist with Gays Without Borders.
Petrelis didn't receive the heavily redacted 19-page FOIA report until early December 2014. That was five and a half years after he received the U.K.'s 51-page FOIA response that wasn't so heavily censored. [...]
"Like most Americans, I've been concerned about the American war in Iraq and the troubles it's unleashed, including the torture against gay people," said Petrelis, 55, who filed an appeal to his FOIA request to the State Department in late December.
"As gay advocates we have to be concerned that information was not released in a timely manner," Petrelis added. "Five and a half years is not acceptable in terms of releasing this information and then what was released was redacted."
Human rights experts Becca Heller, director and co-founder of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, and Jessica Stern, executive director of IGLHRC, agreed with Petrelis, stating that the U.S.'s lack of rapid response to a FOIA request in regard to human rights issues is a concern.
Stern stated that the law provides that the U.S. should fulfill requests in a timely manner.
"Five years could not be considered a timely manner," she said.
Stern pointed out that the U.K. was just coming to the conversation regarding foreign policy dealing with LGBT issues, and she hadn't seen much in terms of LGBT Iraqis.
"I can't comment on what the government of the United Kingdom has done on Iraq. I haven't seen a lot from them from the British government, which leads me to believe that this has not been a priority concern of theirs," Stern told the B.A.R., despite being provided the U.K. 2009 FOIA report. "But there also haven't been British organizations consistently lobbying their government to take up this issue. [...]
"The U.S. has actually addressed issues of LGBT Iraqis," Stern said. "It has raised issues of LGBTI Iraqis in bilateral affairs going back seven years. It's funded the evacuation of LGBTI Iraqis. It has supported the effort of a broad range of Iraqi organizations to address gender-based violence."
However, she believed the U.S. and other governments could do more. [...]
Part 1: Revealing what was being done
The B.A.R. found all but one of the documents included in the redacted U.S. FOIA report on WikiLeaks, as well as another document that wasn't included in the report that addressed the situation of LGBT Iraqis in Iraq. All but one of the reports was unredacted. [...]
In the reports, officials of the three governments confirmed a rash of murders of gay men were at the hands of militias. This was after reports of kidnappings of gay Iraqi men by militias who tortured them – even gluing their anuses shut and feeding them laxatives until they died – surfaced in American and Iraqi media in 2009.
It was these reports that prompted Petrelis to file a FOIA request in a quest to find out what the U.K. and U.S. were doing in Iraq, particularly what they were doing to protect LGBT Iraqis, he said. [...]
However, Wijdan Selim, the minister of human rights of Iraq, confirmed in the report that claims of more than 100 LGBT Iraqis sitting on death row that came from Iraq LGBT, a UK-based organization that is now defunct, weren't valid. Additionally, evidence of claims from the same organization that individuals were convicted of homosexuality wasn't found in an investigation, she said in a 2009 report.
Representatives of Iraq, the U.K. and the U.S. attributed a "spate of murders of homosexual men in Baghdad" early in April 2009, to militias responding to religious leaders' calls to "eradicate homosexuality" or for families to reclaim so-called family honor. [...]
Some of the ISF members sided with religious leaders and militias on the gay issue, in spite of homosexuality not being illegal for adults in Iraq, she informed U.K. and U.S. officials during a meeting in April, according to the July 10, 2009 report. But the law is vague, being left open to interpretation; for example by some Iraqi religious leaders and communities who consider homosexuality a crime under Islamic (Sharia) law.
Extremist religious leaders and militias, such as the Jaysh al-Mahdi and the Badr Brigade, were already campaigning for people to turn in anyone they believed to be homosexual. Muqtada al-Sadr, a leader of the Jaysh al-Mahdi, "ordered that the 'depravity' of homosexuality be eradicated," on May 29, according to a July 10, 2009 state department email.
Police were infiltrated with followers of the extremist militias.
In portions of the redacted reports, Selim pointed to the increasing rise of "Islamization of Iraqi society," during a December 14, 2009 meeting with Jeffrey Feltman, then assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department. LGBT Iraqis told Ministry of Human Rights (MoHR) officials that they feel the "Islamization of Iraqi society discriminates against them," as one of the main concerns that LGBTs cited. [...]
However, Selim expressed concern, along with other ministries of human rights, including the Kurds, that pushing the LGBT issue would increase violence against the vulnerable community. Overall, there wasn't a desire within Iraq to raise the LGBT issue or to help LGBTs for fear of a backlash. MoHR was also overwhelmed with other pressing issues, such as sex trafficking, according to the reports.
Mohanad Lateef, a 45-year-old gay Iraqi photographer who escaped to the U.S., agreed, pointing out in an interview that, "It's difficult to protect a minority when you are not protecting the majority."
Selim informed Feltman that "her ministry is working to ensure the rights of all Iraqis," but she warned, "raising the specific issue of LGBT murders would only make this community a bigger target for extremists," during the December 14, 2009 meeting, according to the report. [...]
Selim wasn't convinced by Feltman's reassurance that she wouldn't lose support when the coalition forces withdrew. Lack of support by the U.K. and U.S. was already occurring. She expressed frustration with lack of support from the two countries and that her warnings weren't being heeded by the government of Iraq.
The WikiLeaks reports revealed that the U.S. was concerned about what was happening in Iraq, especially with the LGBT community. However, officials concealed that concern and the actions taken at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq to get LGBTs out of the country in April and May 2009.
Neither LGB members of Congress nor the State Department responded to multiple requests for comment.
Part 2: Disappointment and caution
"I'm disappointed that the U.S. State Department has not released more comprehensive information about what they were doing at the time to protect [LGBT] Iraqis," said Petrelis, critical of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama, who were in their first year of office at the time.
"You don't get any sense of what our government was doing to protect the gays at the time," Petrelis said, after reading the unredacted WikiLeaks reports. [...]
Human rights experts and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres wouldn't comment on the U.K. and U.S. policies in Iraq then or now, but they acknowledged their concerns for LGBT Iraqis. The UNHCR added its willingness to help LGBT Iraqis leave the country, if necessary.
However, the U.K. FOIA report shows that the country was working with human rights and global LGBT rights groups, including the LGBT Iraqi group, to grasp the alleged human rights violations against LGBT Iraqis and how to best handle it. The U.K. report also showed that the Dutch government also expressed concern about the homophobic murders of Iraqi LGBTs and was working with the U.K. to attempt to solve the issue. The U.K. report showed that the country was involved in the conversation in 2009.
"There is still every reason for human rights advocates and gay activists to say we want gay people protected in Iraq," argued Petrelis.
Petrelis believes then and now that there is "every reason for American gays to be concerned about our State Department and what it did or did not do in 2009." In his mind, an informed LGBT community and allies can help the government help protect LGBT Iraqis.
1. UK Foreign Office, July 2009, part one
2. UK Foreign Office, July 2009, part two