A Shift in Rhetoric on LGBTI by Iran

03/11/2015 12:35 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

On February 18, the powerful head of Iran's Judiciary, Ayatollah Amoli Lariijani, was widely quoted by the Iranian state-run media, claiming that Iran does not execute homosexuals, or "those who have these tendencies."

The Ayatollah's denial of killing "homosexuals" came as part of his speech to a group of university professors and members of academia, where he ridiculed the West for recognizing gay rights, including same-sex marriage, and dismissed any criticism of the Iranian legal system for limiting these rights.

He is technically correct in arguing that homosexual tendencies in Iran are not punishable by death. Under the Iranian penal code, the crime of "homosexuality" (which can be proved by touching, kissing, etc) between two men or two women is punishable by lashing, and not death. The Ayatollah, however, conveniently forgets to mention that Iran's penal code requires the death sentence for "sodomy" between two men (and not for "homosexuality.") The latest version of Iran's official Penal code, which was ratified in 2013 as the Islamic Penal Code, specifically requires the death penalty for consensual sodomy between two men (Article 234). Iran's new Penal Code also criminalizes "homosexuality" (in the absence of any sexual act), setting forth a punishment of up to 74 lashes (Article 237).

But given the strict media censorship by the government, the lack of transparency of the Iranian court system, and the systematic promotion of social and cultural homophobia by the government, it is next to impossible to state categorically that individuals have or have not been executed for consensual same-sex relations. The government has a documented history of charging individuals, including men suspected of same-sex activities as well as political opponents and others, with bogus crimes, such as drug dealing or rape. Under government pressure, and in some cases to protect confidentiality, many lawyers choose not to share details of their clients' cases with international rights groups, and many families of prisoners cover up "sodomy charges," which are considered a social taboo. Under the circumstances, no one exactly knows how many executions of individuals involved in consensual same-sex relations occur in Iran.

In fact, the Iranian government strictly forbids any public discussion about sexual orientation. Last May 7, the authorities shut down an independent newspaper, Ghanun (which ironically means "law" in Persian), after the newspaper ran a satirical piece about homosexuality among youth. The Tehran prosecutor's office ordered the Ministry of Culture to close down the newspaper for publishing "anti-Islamic content." Only after a three-month legal battle that included a $1,500 fine was the newspaper able to renew its license.

So why would the Iranian top judge publicly deny executions?

This is the second time he denied the "execution of homosexuals" in Iran. Last August 13, he was quoted by the Iranian media making similar claims in a speech to the annual gathering of Iranian ambassadors overseas. The setting may help to explain the reason why he is intent on refuting the facts of Iranian persecution of gays.

In that speech, Amoli called on the ambassadors to respond to the West's "human rights smear campaign against Iran." It appears that after years of international pressure, including numerous calls by the U.N. Human Rights Committee and other U.N. bodies, the Iranian authorities finally took notice of the international concern over the systematic violations of LGBTI peoples' basic rights in Iran, and, specifically, the legal provisions that allow the death penalty for adult consensual sex between men. Just last October, during the second cycle of Iran's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the U.N. Human Rights Council, more than 10 countries made recommendations to Iran about the LGBTI rights situation.

Indeed Amoli's denial of "killing homosexuals" in Iran is a sharp departure from comments made by his predecessor, Ayatollah Musavi Ardebili. The former head of Iranian Judiciary under Ayatollah Khomeni was quoted by the press in May 1990, describing the punishment for homosexual acts as "chopping their heads off with a sword and [cutting] them into two pieces."
While religiously-inspired homophobia continues to exist in Iran (as in many other countries worldwide), it now seems as if Iranian leaders are not as willing as before to publicly brag about the abuses. The Islamic Republic of Iran' laws, policies and practices continue to deny the existence and the rights of gays and lesbians, but the recent shift in rhetoric suggests the Iranian government is no longer willing to publicly brag about its deplorable record.

The answer to this change of heart may lies in the geopolitical landscape of the region, where several high-profile radical groups appear to be competing to see who can commit more acts of gruesome violence against minorities -- including non-Muslims, ethnic groups, and LGBT individuals -- in the name of religion. Perhaps the authorities in Tehran have realized that gaining international notoriety -- alongside those radical groups infamous for violating human rights -- does not help the country's image on the international stage.

Years of international campaigning by groups such as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Iranian Queer Organization, and others have finally turned the world's attention to Iran's failure to uphold the human rights of LGBTI people, and perhaps Iran realized that their shameful persecution of individuals based on their sexual orientation, or private intimate acts, is nothing to be proud of.