Rights group denounces violence against LGBT people in Iraq

A report by Human Rights Watch, in collaboration with an Iraqi LGBT rights organization, accuses armed groups in Iraq of abducting, raping, torturing, and killing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people with impunity

BAGHDAD -- A transgender woman said several men beat her up, threw her in a garbage bin, cut her and set her alight before she was rescued. A gay man said his boyfriend was killed before his eyes. A lesbian woman was stabbed in the leg and said she was warned to stop her “immoral behavior.”

The accounts are part of a report by Human Rights Watch that accuses armed groups in Iraq of abducting, raping, torturing, and killing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people with impunity. The Iraqi government, it says, has failed to hold perpetrators accountable.

Released Wednesday, the report by the New York-based organization in collaboration with Iraqi LGBT rights group IraQueer also accuses Iraqi police and security forces of being often complicit in compounding anti-LGBT violence and of arresting individuals “due to non-conforming appearance.”

It paints a picture of LGBT people besieged from multiple directions. These include “extreme violence” by family members; harassment in the streets; and digital targeting and harassment by armed groups on social media and same-sex dating applications, it said.

“Attacks against LGBT Iraqis have become multi-faceted and the methods of targeting have expanded,” Rasha Younes, LGBT rights researcher in the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch and the report’s author, said in response to emailed questions.

“Many LGBT people said they felt they were forced to hide who they are to stay alive,” the report said.

Across much of the Middle East and North Africa, LGBT people and organizations advocating for LGBT rights face violence and discrimination, and most countries in the region have laws that criminalize same-sex relations, Younes said. Some that don’t, use other laws to target LGBT people, she added.

In Iraq specifically, “a culture of impunity and relative absence of the rule of law ... allow armed groups to escape punishment for violence against ordinary Iraqis, including LGBT people,” she said.

Armed groups suspected to have been involved in abuses against LGBT people, according to the report, mostly fall under the Popular Mobilization Forces, a state-sanctioned umbrella group of militias, the most powerful of which are Iranian-backed Shiite groups.

The Interior Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Khaled al-Muhanna, denied any attacks by security forces on gay people. A mid-level commander with a powerful faction within the PMF who was contacted by The Associated Press also rejected the accusations, saying any violence was likely from their families.

The Islamic State group, which at the height of its power controlled large parts of Syria and Iraq, reserved one of its most brutal methods of killing for those suspected of being gay -- throwing them to their death from building rooftops.

The report is based in part on 54 interviews with LGBT Iraqis; Human Rights Watch conducted research for it between June and November of last year.

Two LGBT people interviewed by the AP in Baghdad -- one who identifies as bisexual and another as lesbian -- said they were afraid of sharing photos of themselves on same-sex dating apps, fearing it would be used against them. Both spoke on condition of anonymity fearing reprisal from armed groups and their families.

Fear of blackmail is widespread among LGBT people in Iraq, they said.

“When I choose to open myself up to someone I wonder, can I trust them? Or will they use this against me?” said the bisexual Iraqi man, a filmmaker living in Baghdad.

“I’ve lived in fear every day of my life since I discovered myself (to be bisexual),” he said.

The lesbian woman, an employee at a foreign embassy, said she confided in only a few close friends. Asked what was the worst that could happen if she opened up to her family, she said: “They would kill me.”

Loosely defined “morality” clauses and the absence of anti-discrimination legislation are among the “formidable barriers” cited by the report as deterring LGBT people from reporting abuses to the police or filing complaints against law enforcement agents. This, it added, creates an environment in which “police and armed groups can abuse them with impunity.”

In describing an attack against her last year, the transgender woman who said in the report that she was set on fire, added that her attackers wielded razor blades and screwdrivers. “I was screaming and tossing and turning from the burns, but I managed to protect my face.”

Some Iraqi government officials and religious figures have made anti-LGBT statements that helped fuel violence against LGBT people, the report said, adding that members of armed groups began a campaign of violence against men suspected of same-sex conduct in 2009.

Among its recommendations, it urged Iraqi authorities to investigate reports of violence by armed groups and security forces against perceived or actual LGBT people and punish those found responsible.

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Fam reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed reporting.

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