The Dangers of Being Young, Gay and Iranian
Amir is a 22-year-old gay Iranian who was arrested by Iran's morality police as part of a massive Internet entrapment campaign targeting gays, beaten and tortured while in custody, threatened with death, and lashed 100 times. He escaped from Iran in August, and is now in Turkey, where he awaits a grant of asylum by a gay-friendly country.
In a two-hour telephone interview from Turkey, Amir -- through a native Persian translator -- provided a terrifying, first-hand account of the Islamic Republic of Iran's intense and extensive anti-gay crackdown, which swept up Amir and made him its victim. Here is Amir's story.
Amir is from Shiraz, a city of more than a million people in southwestern Iran that the Shah tried to make "the Paris of Iran" in the 1960s and 1970s, attracting a not insignificant gay population and making the city a favorite vacation spot for Iranian gays. But, after the 1979 revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini, Shiraz was targeted as a symbol of taaghoot, or decadence.
Amir's father was killed by a gas attack in the Iran-Iraq war in 1987, becoming -- in the Islamic Republic's official parlance -- a "martyr," whose surviving family thus had the right to special benefits and treatment from the state. Amir, who grew up with his mother, an older brother, and two sisters, said, "I've known I was gay since I was about five or six -- I always preferred to play with girls. I had my first sexual experience with a man when I was 13. But nobody in my family knew I was gay."
Amir's first arrest for being gay occurred two years ago. "I was at a private gay party, about 25 young people there, all of us close friends," he recalled. "One of the kids, Ahmed Reza -- whose father was a colonel in the intelligence services, and who was known to the police to be gay -- snitched on us, and alerted the authorities this private party was going to happen. Ahmed waited until everyone was there, then called the Office for Promotion of Virtue and Prohibition of Vice, headed in Shiraz by Colonel Safaniya, who a few minutes later raided the party. The door opened, and the cops swarmed in, insulting us -- screaming 'who's the bottom? Who's the top?' and beating us, led by Colonel Javanmardi. When someone tried to stop them beating up the host of the party, they were hit with pepper spray. One of our party was a transsexual -- the cops slapped her face so hard they busted her eardrum and she wound up in hospital. Ahmed Reza, the gay snitch, was identifying everyone as the cops beat us up. The cops took sheets, ripped them up, and blindfolded us, threw us into a van, and took us to a holding cell in Interior Ministry headquarters -- they knew us all by name."
Iranians live in fear of the Interior Ministry, which has a reputation like that of the former Soviet KGB's domestic bureau, and whose prisons strike terror in people's hearts the way the infamous Lubianka in Moscow did.
"I was the third person to be interrogated," Amir said. "The cops had seized videos taken at the party, in one of which I was reciting a poem. The cops told me to recite it again. 'What poem?' I said. They began beating me in the head and face. When I tried to deny I was gay, they took off my shoes and began beating the soles of my feet with cables. The pain was excruciating. I was still blindfolded. They had found dildos in the house where the party was-they beat me with them, stuffed them in my mouth. When I told them my father was a martyr [of the Iran-Iraq war] they beat me up even more, and harder. They took away my card [entitling Amir to martyr's benefits] and said they'd tell the local university, where I was studying computers."
Amir said that, at the same time, "They went to my house, seized my computer, found online homoerotic pictures of guys in it, and showed them to my mother. That's how mother found out I was gay. Eventually I was tried and fined 100,000 tomens [or about $120, a large sum in Iran]. At the time he fined me, the judge told me that 'if we send you to a physician who vouches that your rectum has been penetrated in any way, you will be sentenced to death.'"
Most of the anti-gay crackdown, Amir said, is conducted by the basiji, a sort of unofficial para-police under the authority of the hard-line Revolutionary Guards (called Pasdaran in Persian.) It is the basiji -- thugs recruited from the criminal classes and the lumpen unemployed -- who are assigned to be agents provocateurs, and are given the violent dirty work, so the regime can claim it wasn't officially responsible. For example, during recent university strikes and demonstrations, it was the basiji who were charged with the defenestrations and the vicious beatings of rebellious students.
A year after his first arrest, an unrepentant Amir was in a Yahoo gay chat room on the Web. "Someone came into the chat room and started messaging me, but I told him he wasn't my type and gave him a description of the kind of guy I was looking to meet," Amir recalled. "A few minutes later, another guy started messaging me. We exchanged pix, and he sent me his Web page right away -- and he matched exactly all the descriptions I'd sent to the previous guy. It turned out later both guys were police agents, they had so many they could come up with one who matched the personal preferences of any gay guy in the chat rooms.
"With this second guy, I was really excited, and we made a date for that afternoon at a phone booth near Bagh-e-Safa Bridge. When I got there, we started to walk away to talk and get to know each other. But within 30 seconds, I felt a hand laid on my shoulder from behind -- it was an undercover agent in regular clothes, whose name turned out to be Ali Panahi. With two other basiji, he handcuffed me, forced me into a car, and took me back to the Intelligence Ministry headquarters, a very scary place. There, I denied that I was gay, and denied that this had been a gay rendezvous -- but they showed me a printout from the chat room of my messages and my pix."
Then, said Amir, the torture began. "There was a metal chair in the middle of the room -- they put a gas flame under the chair, and made me sit on it as the metal seat got hotter and hotter. They threatened to send me to an army barracks where all the soldiers were going to rape me. There was a soft drink bottle sitting on a table -- Ali Panahi told one of the other basiji to take the bottle and shove it up my ass, screaming, 'This will teach you not to want any more cock!' I was so afraid of sitting in that metal chair as it got hotter and hotter that I confessed. Then they brought out my file, and told me that I was a 'famous faggot' in Shiraz. They beat me up so badly that I passed out, and was thrown, unconscious, into a holding cell. When I came to, I saw there were several dozen other gay guys in the cell with me. One of them told me that, after they had taken him in, they beat him and forced him to set up dates with people through chat rooms-and each one of those people had been arrested, those were the other people in that cell with me.
"We were eventually all taken to court, and cross-examined. The judge sentenced four of us, including me, to public flogging. The news was printed all over the newspapers that a group of homosexuals had been arrested, with our names. I got 100 lashes -- I passed out before the 100 lashes were over. When I woke up, my arms and legs were so numb that I fell over when they picked me up from the platform on which I'd been lashed. They had told me that, if I screamed, they will beat me even harder -- so I was biting my arms so hard, to keep from screaming, that I left deep teeth wounds in my own arms."
After this entrapment and public flogging, Amir's life became unbearable -- he was rousted regularly at his home by the basiji and by agents of the Office for Promotion of Virtue and Prohibition of Vice (which represses "moral deviance" -- things such as boys and girls walking around holding hands, women not wearing proper Islamic dress or wearing makeup, same-sex relations, and prostitution).
But after the hangings of two gay teens in the city of Mashad in July of this year -- and the worldwide protests that followed those hangings -- Amir said that things got even worse for him and other Iranian gays. Amir was under continual surveillance, harassed, and threatened.
"After the Mashad incident, the visits from the authorities would become an almost daily occurrence," he said. "They would come to my house and threaten me. They knew everything about everything I did, about everywhere I went. They would tell me exactly what I had done each and every time I had left the house. It had gotten to the point where I was starting to suspect my own friends of spying on me.
"On one of these visits, Ali Panahi -- the one who'd arrested me the last time -- grabbed me by the hair and asked me if I'd suck his cock if he asked me to. One of my friends was raped by Ali Panahi, who fucked my friend in exchange for letting him go without a record. They would arrest me all the time, take me in for questioning in the middle of the day. When I left the house, they'd hassle me, ask me if I was going to go looking for dick, and tell me not to leave my house and to keep off the streets.
"In one of these arrests, Colonel Javanmardi told me that if they catch me again that I would be put to death, 'just like the boys in Mashad.' He said it just like that, very simply, very explicitly. He didn't mince his words. We all know that the boys who were hanged in Mashad were gay-the rape charges against them were trumped up, just like the charges of theft and kidnapping against them. When you get arrested, you are forced by beatings, torture, and threats to confess to crimes you didn't commit. It happens all the time, it happened to friends of mine. I could not get a job because of my case history. Since I was obviously gay I couldn't get a job anywhere, and could not get a government job because of my record."
By the last time the cops came to his house, Amir had decided to try to leave the country. "I invented an excuse, and told them I had to go to Tehran to take my higher university entrance exams," Amir said. "I already had a passport from three years ago. In Tehran I borrowed a little money from a friend and came to Turkey by bus. At the border, I really lucked out-I was terrified because I had a record, and not enough money to get out or pay a bribe."
But indolent border guards didn't bother to check on him-they just took his passport, stamped it, and let him leave. That, said Amir, was about a month ago.
When asked what message he wants to send to the world about what's happening in Iran, and what he thinks about his own future, Amir paused, then said: "The situation of gays in Iran is dreadful. We have no rights at all. They would beat me up and tell me to confess to things I hadn't done, and I would do it. The gays and lesbians in Iran are under unbelievable pressure-they need help, they need outside intervention. Things are really bad. Really bad. We are constantly harassed in public, walking down the street, going to the store, going homeÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ anywhere and anywhere, everyone, everyone! One of my dear friends, Nima, commited suicide a month ago in Shiraz. He just couldn't take it anymore.
"I don't know what's going to happen to me. I've run out of money. I don't know what to do. I just hope they don't send me back to Iran. They'll kill me there."