While Europe and North America were busy celebrating pride month, Syria underwent a completely different experience. The website Gay Middle East recently ran a note about government crackdowns on gays and the arrest of 25 young men who had attended gay private parties, accused in a combination of gay behavior and drug use and possession. The article had few details, but it drives home how difficult things can be in other parts of the world. The crackdowns began in March and April of this year. The full article is here.
I had been to Syria earlier this year during my Middle East tour for the Arabic version of Gay Travels in the Muslim World though there were no events held in Syria. Gays can be paranoid for sure, but that's normal behavior for anyone of any orientation in a country ruled by a dictator. The current president, Bashar Al-Assad is certainly not his father, Hafez, who was known for killing tens of thousands of his own citizens over the three decades he ruled, but he can still be ruthless. The crackdown on gays is unusual for several reasons -- Al-Assad has been hoping to move closer to the West, and cracking down on gays would be something to avoid. Secondly, the country regards itself as secular, meaning in general, gays have been tolerated, as long as gays did not move into the political, as no group is allowed to do in the country. During my visit, there did appear to be underlying religious tension in the country, controlled by a dictatorship, much akin to what existed in neighboring Iraq while Saddam was in power. Is Al-Assad wary of the religious powers, and seeking "credentials" in cracking down on gays as happens in other countries in the region? It is hard to know.
At the time of my visit, most gays did not seem to worry about government crackdowns, though most knew society as a whole did not allow them to be out, even within the capital of Damascus. Dan Littauer, the editor of Gay Middle East, told me that within the next few weeks, trials would begin for at least 15 of the men. The most that they could hope for was to be accused of drug possession, which would be less problematic than being convicted of homosexuality. According to Wikipedia, homosexuality is illegal in Syria, based on "article 520 of the penal code of 1949 [which] provides for at least three-years imprisonment." Littauer received information on the crackdown from an anonymous contact who spoke of the police "kind of rounding people up," in gay cruising sites. In addition, according to Littauer, the police are cracking down on gay parties, which have generally been held in remote parts of the city, accusing party-goers of drug use, while avoiding such arrests at heterosexual venues.
Syria, where homosexuality has traditionally been overlooked if not exactly fully tolerated, has also served as a location for gay Iraqis to escape persecution, meaning it may no longer be a haven for gays in the region. At least 9,000 gay Iraqis have relocated to Damascus, according to gay Iraqi men I interviewed during my visit. Littauer also commented that the gay crackdowns might be part of a larger human rights crackdown.
Many other groups have been made aware of the situation, but have been unable to comment in detail while they assemble more information. Georges Azzi, of HELEM, the Lebanese gay organization, stated, "I can only confirm that arrests are indeed taking place. Unfortunately none of our contacts can give us more details at this point. It seems that the police are tracking gay people in Syria now."
Neil Grungras, the Executive Director of ORAM, the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration, based in San Francisco, said, "I too have heard rumors but nothing concrete of an escalation. That being said, among our clients in Turkey was a gay Palestinian from Syria who spent 4 years in prison and was severely tortured on trumped-up charges because he was gay," indicating that such cases might have been ongoing but unknown until recently. Neil Durkin, of the Media Unit in the London Amnesty International office, said, "Amnesty is looking into the case."
Littauer said that, through his contacts in Syria, he will continue to report on the case and post updates on Gay Middle East.