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Our Moral Duty to Address Gay Discrimination in Iraq

Although homosexuality was by no means permitted under Saddam Hussein's regime, only after the U.S. invasion did widespread anti-gay rhetoric and violence in Iraq reach a crisis point.
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This article was originally published on Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel.

In September 2006, Samir, an Iraqi doctor, fled from his home to Jordan just moments before family members came to torture and murder him for "dishonoring" the family by being gay. Samir spent the next few years fleeing from country to country. While working in a hospital in Jordan, he spotted his uncles searching for him just in time to slip out of his office and escape to Saudi Arabia, only to be tortured and nearly killed by Saudi Arabia's "moral police," sending him fleeing back to Jordan.

Unfortunately, the only thing uncommon about Samir's story is that it has a happy ending. With legal help from the Human Rights Watch and the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), Samir safely resettled in the United States in December, 2009. But, unlike Samir, the vast majority of gay Iraqis have no access to legal counsel. Without it, they have little chance of navigating the resettlement system and getting to safety in the U.S. Even those Iraqis with legal help face the staggering challenge of staying alive during the lengthy resettlement process.

The consequences for gay Iraqis who fail to obtain refugee status are severe. Since 2004, hundreds of young men suspected of homosexual conduct have been abducted, tortured, and brutally executed with only a cursory response from Iraqi authorities. Our clients at IRAP and others provide appalling accounts of the violence: in one gruesome method of torture (and often murder), gay men have their anuses glued shut before being fed laxatives.

Although Samir was pursued by family members, the fanatical Mahdi Army is responsible for much of the violence towards gays. "Death squads" murder men, then leave their destroyed bodies in public as warnings to other gay men. Their brutality is matched only by their frighteningly systematic methods: before murdering their captives, the squads interrogate their victims, search through cell phones and demand information on each contact. In this climate, no gay Iraqi whose sexual identity is known to even one other gay man is safe. Another of our clients, Yasser, was kidnapped by a gang who had also kidnapped his ex-boyfriend and found Yasser's information in his phone. Though Yasser eventually escaped, the gang also seized his phone -- and the names and numbers of all of his gay acquaintances.

LGBT Iraqis seek refuge, but leaving for nearby countries is no guarantee of safety. The proximity of these neighboring nations to Iraq mean persecutors can simply follow fleeing refugees, as with Samir's near-encounter with his uncles in Jordan. And, while the violence toward gays is singularly horrific in Iraq, settling gay Iraqis in neighboring countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia (where homosexuality is illegal) is a poor solution.

Even fleeing to countries like Turkey and Jordan carries intense challenges for gay men. Our clients report being harassed by officials assigned to help refugees; other reports show they have also threatened to deport these men or disclose their sexual orientation. Fearful of new threats of violence and harassment if they confess to local officials that they are gay, these men sometimes chose to stay silent and risk being sent back to certain death in Iraq, as LGBT status is the very basis of their persecution and refugee claims.

We do not need to tolerate death or torture for LGBT Iraqis: the State Department can immediately begin allowing these persecuted Iraqis into the U.S. through a program that expedites relocating at-risk Iraqi minority groups into America.

The Secretary of State should designate these gay men as "Priority 2" refugees, under the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act passed in 2008. "P2" status cuts months to years off the typical time of the resettlement process -- including bypassing waiting to be interviewed by the United National High Commissioner of Refugees to let them apply for refugee status directly at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq -- and lessens time gay Iraqis stay in danger in neighboring Middle-East countries. Reducing the number of interviews these vulnerable men have to go through to get refugee status would also decrease their risk of encountering a hostile local official.

Members of Congress have taken notice of the LGBT community in Iraq, and are demanding that Secretary of State Clinton act. In February, Senate Kristen Gillibrand and Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, along with 42 of their colleagues in Congress, wrote Secretary Clinton urging her to help gay Iraqis in danger relocate.

America has a singular responsibility to protect these men. Although homosexuality was by no means permitted under Saddam Hussein's regime, only after the U.S. invasion did widespread anti-gay rhetoric and violence in Iraq reach a crisis point. Indeed, according to a BBC special investigative report, there is general agreement within Iraq's LGBT community that they were better off under the previous regime. While horrible in untold ways, the Hussein regime suppressed the very Shia extremists who are now driving the vast majority of attacks on homosexuals in Iraq. Congress, along with the LGBT and human rights communities, must continue to insist that Secretary Clinton use the power granted to her to ensure that Samir's story of survival becomes the norm, rather than the exception.

Taylor Asen and Zach Strassburger are students at the Yale Law School in New Haven, CT.