Gay Iranian asylum seekers in the Netherlands will not be sent back to their home country.

Reacting to pressure from human rights groups, Dutch Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk has granted gays and lesbians from Iran special asylum rights.

Asylum seekers fleeing because of fear of persecution because of their sexual orientation will now be granted full residence status.

The about-turn comes after Human Rights Watch wrote to Dutch authorities calling on them not to return people to countries where they face torture, ill-treatment or death, a fate known to be awaiting LGBT people in Iran where Sharia law proscribes the death penalty for homosexuality.

In February 2006, Dutch Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk first declared her intention to end the moratorium, stating that “It appears that there are no cases of an execution on the basis of the sole fact that someone is homosexual. … For homosexual men and women it is not totally impossible to function in society, although they should be wary of coming out of the closet too openly.”

But after strong protests from Dutch civil society and international human rights organisations, Ms Verdonk reinstated the ban for six more months, pending a review of conditions in Iran.

Article 111 of Iran’s criminal code, the Code of Islamic Punishments, states that lavat (sexual intercourse between men) “is punishable by death.” Under Articles 121 and122 of the Penal Code, tafkhiz (non-penetrative ?foreplay? between men) is punishable by 100 lashes for each partner and by death on the fourth conviction. Article 123 of the Penal Code further provides that, “If two men who are not related by blood lie naked under the same cover without any necessity,” each one will receive 99 lashes. Articles 127 to 134 stipulate that the punishment for sexual intercourse between women is 100 lashes; if the offence is repeated three times, the punishment is execution.

Human Rights Watch has documented torture and executions for homosexual conduct in Iran. Meanwhile, the government of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has tightened restrictions on civil society and punishments for dissent in recent months. Executions have increased, including death sentences for morals offences, the group claims.

Scott Long, director of Human Rights Watch’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Programme said: “Persecution for homosexual conduct in Iran is documented and undeniable.

“Sending gay and lesbian asylum seekers back to face torture is a clear violation of international law.”

The European Convention on Human Rights prohibits states from deporting individuals to countries where they may be at risk of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Last year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Netherlands could not proceed with a deportation to Eritrea due to such a risk.

The UN Convention against Torture says in Article 3 that, “No State shall expel, return or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”

It also requires that “for the purpose of determining whether there are such grounds, the competent authorities shall take into account all relevant considerations, including where applicable, the existence in the State concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights.”