Two gay Iraqi men have survived kidnapping and beating by the violently homophobic Mahdi Army.
The army is loyal to firebrand fundamentalist Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, who is fighting to establish an Islamist dictatorship in Iraq.
Two months after their ordeal, traumatised Ahmed, 23, and Zaid, 24, both students in Baghdad University, have come forward to tell how they were lured into a trap by members of the Mahdi Army.
The Madhi Army has been involved in the torture and execution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Iraqis and many other Iraqis, especially women, who do not conform to its harsh interpretation of Islam.
Ahmed’s and Zaid’s story reveals how Muqtada al-Sadr’s men have adopted a new tactic, borrowed from the Iranian secret police.
They are posing as gays in online chat rooms, in order to lure gay men, arrange dates and kill them.
Ahmed and Zaid told their story to Dina H, a 30 year-old Iraqi lesbian who is the co-coordinator of the Iraqi gay human rights group, Iraqi LGBT, in the southern region, south of Baghdad.
“Ahmed and Zaid had gone online in early May and entered a gay chatroom, where they arranged to meet two men who had asked them for a date,” said Peter Tatchell of LGBTI human rights organisation OutRage!
Mr Tatchell and OutRage! work closely with Iraqi LGBT, supporting its life-saving humanitarian work.
He retells the two men’s story, based on information recently received from Dina H inside Iraq.
“On May 17, Ahmed and Zaid showed up for their date,” said Mr Tatchell.
“Their dates were very good looking men with a brand new car. After chatting for a while, Ahmed and Zaid agreed to go with them in their car. They headed towards the Al-Karada district of Baghdad.
“When they got there, the mood changed suddenly. Their dates revealed themselves to be members of the Mahdi Army. They locked the car doors, took out guns and began beating Ahmed and Zaid.
“The Mahdi men interrogated them, demanding to know the names and phone numbers of other gay men.
“They went through the names of everyone listed in their mobile phones and wallets.
“Ahmed and Zaid were bashed badly and stripped of their clothes, leaving them with only their underwear.
“They were then blindfolded, handcuffed with strips of wire, forced into the boot of the car and driven away,” said Mr Tatchell.
According to Dina H’s account, based on what she was told by the two men:
“Ahmed and Zaid thought they were going to a place where they would be shot and left for dead, like has happened to so many other gay Iraqis during the last four years,” reports Dina H.
“The car stopped in a deserted area. The Mahdi men opened the car trunk and told Ahmed and Zaid to kneel on the ground and say their prayers.
“Ahmed and Zaid prayed and waited, expecting to be executed. But suddenly, for a reason unknown, the two Mahdi militia men got in their car and drove away.
“A little later, the driver of a passing car stopped to help them. He removed the wires from Ahmed’s and Zaid’s wrists and took the blindfold from their eyes.
“The driver then helped them hail a taxi which took them home.
“Having survived this near-execution, Ahmed and Zaid have promised themselves that there will be no more chatting with strangers on the internet, and that they will hide their sexuality.
“Few people seem to care about the fate of Iraqi gays and lesbians,” said Dina H.
“Without the continuing help of Iraqi LGBT, we would have been killed a long time ago.
“We are grateful for the latest financial help from Human Rights Watch and from the many other individual donors. It will keep us going for another month or so,” said Dina H.
“Normally, gay kidnap victims are always killed,” adds Ali Hili, a gay Iraqi refugee, who coordinates Iraqi LGBT from London.
“Ahmed and Zaid do not know why they were not shot. They are pleasant, kind young men. Perhaps their kidnappers took pity on them.
“Zaid and Ahmed realise they are very lucky to escape alive. They have learned that being gay in Iraq is impossible. It is too dangerous.
“Dina is running a safe house, hiding eight gays and lesbians who have fled death threats and attempted honour killings by their families.
“She has helped many gay Iraqis over the last four years. We all think she is incredibly brave.
“Iraqi LGBT has been trying hard to raise international awareness and highlight the suffering of lesbian and gay people in Iraq. It has been very difficult.
“We often feel let down by the gay community in the west. We need help to protect our friends and save their lives.
“In these hard times for gay Iraqis, the whole LGBT community worldwide should stand up for the rights of Iraqi LGBTs.
“Iraq is one of the most homophobic and dangerous places on the face of the earth. It is a deadly place for anyone who is found out to be homosexual or who is even suspected of being one,” said Mr Hili.
Iraqi LGBT is making an appeal for donations to fund its work.
“Iraqi LGBT needs donations to help gay people in Iraq who are fleeing the death squads of the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades,” appealed Mr Hili.
“We need money for safe houses, food, electricity, security protection and clothing – and to help pay the phone bills of members of the Iraqi LGBT group.
“They are sending us information about the homophobic killings, at great risk to their own lives.
“Many of the people we are helping had nothing but the clothes on their backs, when they fled attacks by fundamentalist militias and Iraqi police.
“The police have been infiltrated by Shia extremists. They are using the cover the of the police to kill gays and lesbians.
“We are also paying for medication for members who are HIV positive. Otherwise, they will not get treatment.
“If it is discovered that they have HIV, they will surely be killed,” said Mr Hili.
Gay human rights group OutRage! is working with Iraqi LGBT to support its work.
Iraqi LGBT is coordinated by Ali Hili from the safety of London. The group does not yet have a bank account. Operating an Iraqi LGBT bank account in Baghdad would be suicide. For this reason, it has to operate its finances from London.
All the group’s members in London are Iraqi refugees seeking asylum. Their lack of proper legal status makes it difficult for them to open a bank account in the UK.
This is why Iraqi LGBT is asking that cheques be made payable to “OutRage!”, with a cover note marked “For Iraqi LGBT”, and sent to OutRage!, PO Box 17816, London SW14 8WT, England, UK.
OutRage! then forwards the donations received to Ali Hili and Iraqi LGBT for wire transfer to activists in Baghdad.