While the killings of at least five individuals in Iraq by the Islamic State militia—two of whom were allegedly murdered for homosexual conduct—has been widely reported since January 17th as an execution of two gay men for homosexuality, no information available to date can independently verify the facts of their sexual orientation or shed light on the conduct for which they were executed.
In the absence of reliable facts, caution must be taken to avoid inciting panic or risking further harm to others.
The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and our partners at MADRE, the global women’s rights group, have emphasized how little is known and why our reaction to this specific incident, therefore, demands caution, even as we vigorously condemn such killings.
At the same time, despite the lack of information in this case, it is important for the international community to recognize the overall serious risks facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Iraqis living under the Islamic State’s control.
What we do know is this: on January 17, the media center of the Islamic State’s local branch in the Neinava Province published on a social media website four labeled photos of the “executions” of two men who were thrown off a high building in Neinava Province, Iraq.
The ISIS photos show crowds, including children, gathered to watch this horrific scene.
The men’s names have not been made public.
One of the photos in the series is captioned, “The execution is punishment for the person who committed the act of the people of Lot by throwing him off a tall building.” The term “the act of the people of Lot” is a euphemism for sodomy.
According to the captions, the men were accused of sodomy and convicted by the Sharia court in the Neinava Province. Their punishment was explained as in accordance with Sharia law.
At the same time, the Islamic State militia posted captioned photos online of their execution of a woman they allegedly stoned to death for adultery and their crucifixion of two other men for "spreading corruption on earth" through "assaulting the Muslims with arms," "terrorizing the public," and "armed robbery."
As international human rights organizations with experience working with LGBTI Iraqis during crisis, IGLHRC and MADRE warned the media, governments and people of conscience against assuming that the men identified as ‘gay’ and also against assuming the men engaged in homosexual acts.
Other than the photos themselves, very little is known about these executions. IGLHRC has tried to independently verify the events that occurred with little success to date. Without credible evidence, it is crucial to exercise extreme caution in how the event is reported and how the men are described.
The reason for caution is clear. At this time, to publicly call these men “gay” can only do harm. If the men did not identify as gay, the allegation is inaccurate and obscures the Islamic State’s motivation for publicly labeling them as such. If the men indeed identified as gay, extreme caution should be exercised and consultation held with those they loved as widespread publicity potentially exposes their families, loved ones and intimate partners to harm. Honor killings are pervasive in Iraq, so the safety of those most affected must be a paramount concern.
Furthermore, one cannot assume that the executions were for sodomy solely on the basis of information from the Islamic State. Without evidentiary basis or independent confirmation, this sweeping allegation could be applied to anyone the Islamic State seeks to discredit—including human rights activists and anyone opposed to the Islamic State. Accusing opponents of homosexuality is a tried and true tool used to discredit political adversaries throughout the world.
Accuracy is absolutely needed to moderate the level of fear of LGBTI Iraqis living in areas controlled by the Islamic State. We know this from experience. During the anti-emo killings in 2012, rumors circulated alleging that upwards of a thousand people had been killed for perceived gender and sexual non-conformity, while the documented number was nearer ten. In response, IGLHRC interviewed LGBTI Iraqis and found that some fled the country, were shunned, isolated themselves at home too afraid to venture into the streets, and experienced high levels of suicidal ideation.
The stakes today are high enough; allies in the media, foreign governments, and among concerned friends globally must avoid risky inflations of the threat level.
Regardless of how any of the men or the woman executed identified or what they were executed for, the violence of the Islamic State and its tactics of intimidation are unacceptable in all instances. It is important to note that what the Islamic State describes as its “court system” is outside the bounds of international recognition, without adherence to due process and other established legal procedures.
While the facts are unclear, the Islamic State’s very public execution of these men and very public assertion that they were executed for homosexuality underscores the concerns that IGLHRC, MADRE, and another co-author raised in a briefing paper issued in November, “When Coming Out is a Death Sentence.” In addition to documenting ongoing persecution of LGBTI Iraqis, the briefing paper compelled the conclusion that LGBTI people (or anyone perceived as such) in Iraq were at imminent risk of death due to the stated intention of the Islamic State to kill anyone believed to be gay or engaged in same-sex activities. Its companion piece, “We’re Here: Iraqi LGBT People’s Accounts of Violence and Rights Abuses,” a collection of personal stories from LGBT Iraqis, describes the human costs to a community that has been largely rejected by family, community, militias and the state.
Now that we have the Islamic State’s own boastful declaration of responsibility for these tragic deaths, it is clear that our fears of heightened risk for LGBTI Iraqis at the hands of the Islamic State continue to be well-founded.
While encouraging caution, IGLHRC and MADRE urge the international community to focus on the specific dangers LGBTI Iraqis face within the context of the broader national crisis, including by expediting support for internal and external resettlement of people fleeing due to persecution.