Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has denied that any gays live in his country to an audience at Columbia University in New York.

“In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country,” he said. “In Iran we do not have this phenomenon, I don’t know who has told you that we have it.”

Mr Ahmadinejad was challenged by audience members that Amnesty International figures showed that among the 200 people executed in Iran so far this year, some were gay.

“Don’t you have capital punishment in the United States? You do too. In Iran there is capital punishment,” he said.

Demonstrators held up placards outside the New York building saying: “Ahmadinejad – stop persecuting gays and women.”

Columbia University President Lee C Bollinger introduced Mr Ahmadinejad by asking him: “Why have women, members of the Baha’i faith, homosexuals and so many of our academic colleagues become targets of persecution in your country?

“Why in a letter last week to the Secretary General of the UN did Akbar Gangi, Iran’s leading political dissident, and over 300 public intellectuals, writers and Nobel Laureates express such grave concern that your inflamed dispute with the West is distracting the world’s attention from the intolerable conditions your regime has created within Iran? In particular, the use of the Press Law to ban writers for criticizing the ruling system.”

When asked about his alleged denial of the Holocaust, the President said: “I am not saying that it , didn’t happen at all…what does it have to do with the Palestinian people? … Why is it that the Palestinian people are paying the price for an event they had nothing to do with?”

He added: “My question was simple: There are researchers who want to approach the topic from a different perspective. Why are they put into prison? Right now, there are a number of European academics who have been sent to prison because they attempted to write about the Holocaust or research it from a different perspective, questioning certain aspects of it. My question is: Why isn’t it open to all forms of research?”

In August a newspaper, Shargh, was shut down for printing an interview with a lesbian poet, Saghi Ghahreman.

In July 2005, two gay teenagers, Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni were executed sparking protests around the world. Since then, PinkNews.co.uk has reported on public executions and lynchings of gay people across the country.