Mar. 8, 2008 -- Two gay Iranians living in Britain say they fear for their lives after their partners were sentenced to death by Iranian authorities and their requests for asylum in Britain were denied.
Advocates for Mehdi Kazemi, 19, and Pegah Emambakhsh, 40, say they will face harsh physical punishment, prison, and possible execution if forced to return Iran.
The two cases have provoked an international public outcry and have increased scrutiny of British policies toward gay and lesbian asylum-seekers.
While studying English and science in the U.K., Kazemi learned that his boyfriend had been executed for sodomy back in Iran. His father told him the boyfriend had confessed to Iranian authorities that Kazemi was his lover.
The authorities, Kazemi found out, had already been to his parents' house with a warrant for his arrest.
"I was very scared," Kazemi wrote in a letter accompanying his request for asylum in Britain and published in full on the website of the Canada-based Iranian Queer Organization. "I wish to inform secretary of state that I did not come to the UK to claim asylum … But in the past few months my situation back home has changed. The Iranian authorities have found out that I am a homosexual and they are looking for me."
He continued, "I can not stop my attraction to men … If I return to Iran I will be arrested and executed like [my boyfriend]. Since this incident … I have been so scared."
A British judge denied Kazemi's request for asylum in 2006 on the grounds that Iran does not systematically persecute homosexuals.
But human rights activists say that is only because the Iranian government does not officially recognize homosexuality.
Speaking at Columbia University in New York in September of 2007, Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaimed, "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals."
The British Home Office, which deals with cases of deportation, could not be reached in time for comment on this article.
But a spokeswoman for the Office told British newspaper The Independent, "We examine with great care each individual case before removal and we will not remove anyone who we believe is at risk on their return. However, in order to maintain the integrity of our asylum system and prevent unfounded applications it is important that we are able to enforce returns of those who do not need protection."
But Kazemi, terrified at the prospect of being handed over to Iranian authorities after his application for asylum was denied, fled the country.
After a journey that sent him through the Czech Republic and Germany, he is now in The Netherlands, where he is being held in detention while a Dutch court decides whether the country is obliged to hand him back over to Britain under a treaty that says refugees can only request asylum in one European Union country.
Kazemi's uncle, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Saeed, for fear of endangering his family in Iran, described his nephew as a "very quiet and shy boy" and said he felt he had no choice but to run after his application for asylum was turned down."
He said, 'I told you uncle, I cannot trust the British government, they will send me back to Iran," Saeed told ABC News. "By going there I will be killed, and I just don't want to go."
Kazemi's case is one of two garnering international attention.
Pegah Emambakhsh, a 40-year-old lesbian woman who fled Iran for Britain in 2005 also faces deportation to Iran after being denied asylum. Emambakhsh's partner is currently awaiting execution by stoning in Iran.
Speaking to The Independent through an asylum representative Thursday, Emambakhsh said, "I will never, never go back. If I do I know I will die."
Homosexuality is a capital crime in the Islamic Republic of Iran. According to one estimate by gay rights activists, more than 4,000 homosexual men and women have been executed in Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
"They have no human rights, it's very dangerous," Arsham Parsi, 27, the executive director of the Iranian Queer Organization told ABC News.
Of Mehdi Kazemi's case in particular, Parsi said, "It's not humanity. How can they deport somebody back when he has a well-grounded fear of punishment?"
He added that even if Kazemi escapes the authorities when he returns to Iran, his family will likely reject him.
"Unfortunately, his parents, they don't care about him," said Parsi, who says he has been in close contact with Kazemi since 2005. "They don't like his son being a homosexual and his father said, 'I don't care about him,' or 'execute him,' or 'he's not my son.'"
Kazemi's uncle agreed.
"His father is really, really angry on him," he told ABC News. "He thinks that he brought shame to the family."
Human rights organizations say the position of gays has gotten more difficult in Iran in recent years.
"I think things have gotten considerably worse," Zahir Janmohamed, Amnesty International's Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa told ABC News. "Ever since Ahmadinejad came to power, there has been an increased crackdown on 'vice.' That's everything from males and females interacting, clothes that both males and females wear, and certainly it's about controlling sexuality."
Both Kazemi's and Emambakhsh's cases have caused a public and political uproar in Britain. According to the Independent, more than 60 British Members of the European Parliament have signed a petition asking Prime Minister Gordon Brown to overturn the judge's decision in Kazemi's appeal for amnesty.
Kazemi's uncle, who says he speaks to his nephew from the Dutch detention center on a regular basis, told ABC News that Kazemi himself is determined not to return to Tehran, whatever the cost."
He was in a hunger strike for a few days," Saeed said of his nephew's state of mind while awaiting the Dutch court's decision. "I asked him, I think it's best you stop the hunger strike and be sensible. He said, 'look, I'd rather die here. They're sending me to my death, I might as well die here."
Joseph Simonetti and Dan Przygoda contributed reporting to this article.