MASHHAD EXECUTIONS BRIEFING
Were hanged teens gay rapists? Serious doubts about their guilt.
By Peter Tatchell of OutRage!
London – 18 August 2005
This is a provisional attempt to set out a response to the controversy that has erupted concerning the execution of the two Iranian teenagers, Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, who were hanged in public in the city of Mashhad on 19 July 2005, on charges of violent sodomy against a 13 year old boy.
We are deeply disturbed that many people are accepting the official Iranian allegations against the hanged youths at face value; especially when respected organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have in the past condemned the Iranian courts for trumped up charges and unfair trials and have criticised sections of the Iranian media for false news reporting and propaganda on behalf of the regime.
There are a number of serious doubts about the official account of Asgari’s and Marhoni’s alleged crimes. Most of these doubts have not been given due consideration by gay and human rights groups.
While we may never know the definitive truth, it is certainly not reasonable to automatically believe the official Iranian account. There are a number of alternative accounts that are more plausible than what the Iranian courts and the state-sanctioned media have claimed.
Of the underground gay activists and gay rights groups inside Iran that we have spoken to, most have expressed strong doubts concerning the allegation that the hanged youths were rapists. They take the view that they were probably gay and that they were probably executed primarily because of their homosexuality.
They variously believe that the charges that Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni raped a 13 year old boy were either trumped-up by the Iranian authorities to discredit them and undermine protests against their execution or, more likely, invented by the arrested 13 year old and his father to save the family from public shame and to save the 13 year old from trial and severe punishment, including possible execution.
This opinion is shared by several gay people in Mashhad, who were contacted by gay activists in Tehran, who relayed this opinion to us in London. Because they fear arrest by the Iranian authorities, these activists have asked us to not identify them as individuals and to not name their grouping. We respect their request and will abide by it. We have previously worked with this underground Iranian gay network and have always found its reports accurate and reliable.
This view, that the official charges may not reflect what the teenagers actually did, is also shared by members of straight Iranian dissident, exile and refugee groups in the UK (many of which are not particularly pro-gay). They say that the Tehran regime is notorious for framing people on false charges.
We cannot be 100% certain, but alternative explanations concerning the charges against Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni are, in our opinion, more credible than the official Iranian court and media accounts.
What we know for certain is that same-sex relations are punishable by death under the Iranian penal code. The Iranian Islamic regime has a long history of persecuting and executing lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people. It also has a long history of unfair trials and of lies and smears to discredit the people it executes.
We are surprised that many people seem willing to accept the claims by the Iranian courts and the state-controlled media. It concerns us that they are prepared to give the Iranian dictatorship the benefit of the doubt. We are not. We are sceptical. We urge people to examine possible alternative scenarios and explanations.
The original source of the claim that Asgari and Marhoni were child rapists is the daily newspaper, Quds, in the city of Mashhad. The Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) report about the executions, which was circulated around the world, originated with the claims printed in Quds.
Quds is a pro-regime, ultra-conservative Islamist publication, responsible for many moral crusades against "unIslamic" behaviour. It is not an objective or impartial source of news. Its accuracy and reliability has been called into question many times. Local people say that Quds is a moral mouthpiece and propaganda paper for the regime. Like all the press in Iran, it is government-sanctioned and can only exist as long as it tows the official regime line. Quds cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as neutral or unbiased.
There are no truly independent newspapers or news agencies in Iran. Even the more critical ones exist on sufference and there are certain red lines which they must not cross. Professed sympathy for LGB people and for LGB human rights, and criticism of the Iranian courts and Sharia law proscriptions and punishments for homosexuality, are red lines that the Iranian media would cross at great peril to their continued publication.
It is shocking to see esteemed organisations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission not adequately questioning the claims of rape put out by the Iranian judiciary and state-sanctioned, pro-regime Iranian media such as Quds.
This is the equivalent of giving credibility to the claims by the pro-apartheid South African media, which in 1977 reported the government line that the black consciousness leader Steve Biko died after he "fell down the stairs" at police headquarters in Pretoria.
No honourable, credible human rights body bases its assessment of the facts solely on reports from state-controlled courts and state-sanctioned media that endorse a dictatorial regime like the one in Tehran.
Human rights defenders never trusted reports from the pro-Pinochet courts and media in Chile in the 1970s. Nor should we trust the pro-Islamist media and courts in Iran.
A questioning scepticism is required in the case of all non-democratic regimes, and all regimes where sexual minorities are demonised and persecuted.
In the case of the Mashhad executions, the source of the rape allegations was the pro-regime Quds newspaper and the Iranian courts, which often host unfair trials, where the defendants are framed on false charges, denied legal representation, refused the right to call witnesses and so on. We believe it is highly unlikely that Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni received a fair trial.
We accept that Quds claimed the boys were rapists and that the ISNA website repeated this allegation. Indeed, we acknowleged the sexual assault allegations against Asgari and Marhoni in our first news release about the case, dated 21 July 2005:
But we do not accept that the Quds and ISNA reports can be relied upon, without question or doubt, as a fair and accurate account of what the two hanged teenagers actually did.
According to our gay Iranian contacts in Tehran, and their contacts in Mashhad, the allegation of rape was possibly a false charge. This claim comes from an Iranian LGB group that we feel is trustworthy and are inclined to believe. Of course, our contacts in Iran might be mistaken. We should not take their account at face value either. But, on balance, we are more inclined to believe our LGB informants than the regime’s courts and media.
The allegation of a trumped up charge against Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni is not provable but nor is it implausable and unreasonable. The Iranian regime often resorts to smears and false allegations to discredit the people it executes and to undermine human rights campaigns in their defence.
Trumped up charges can include hooliganism, sodomy, alcoholism, adultery, rape, spying and drug abuse. The purpose is to discredit the victims, weaken public sympathy and deter protests – in Iran and abroad.
Dr Ali Mozafarian, a Sunni Muslim leader, was executed in 1992. According to the Iranian regime he was convicted of alcoholism, espionage, adultery and sodomy. But most informed Iranians believe these charges were faked by the regime to win public support for Dr Mozafarian’s execution and to discourage mass protests. His real crime is more likely to have been that he preached the wrong form of Islam (Sunni, not Shia).
The Iranian regime has also been caught out lying on other occasions. In 2004, in the city of Neka, a 16 year old girl, Atefah Rajabi Sahaaleh, who had been raped and sexually abused by men for many years, was convicted of “crimes against chastity.” She was
hanged, like the two young teenagers, by the method of slow, painful strangulation, hoisted by a crane in a public square. There was an international outcry that a 16 year old girl had been executed for acts she had allegedly committed when she was 14. In an attempt to lessen this public outrage, the regime falsely claimed that Atefah was 22 at the time of her execution. Her father was, however, able to prove that the regime was lying. He produced her birth certificate, which showed conclusively that she was only 16 when she was hanged.
The truth is that the official Iranian version of the case of the two hanged youths, Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, are also riddled with contradictions, implausibilities and outright lies.
At first it was claimed by Iranian officials that the executed teens were aged 18 and 19, then that they were 19 and 21, then aged 18 and 20, and finally they made the claim that they were both above 18 at the time of their alleged crimes. The regime changed the youths supposed ages four times in the space of a few days – evidence that the Iranian authorities are not a credible source of facts about the case.
The best evidence suggests that both youths were aged 17 when they were executed (the lawyer for one of them told ISNA that his cleient was under 18) and that they were therefore minors, aged 15 or 16, at the time of their alleged crimes (which were committed over a year before they were hanged).
These examples illustrate why the Iranian court’s and regime’s version of events often cannot be trusted and why we should always question and query its claims.
Tehrans' history of false claims compels us to be sceptical about its allegations that the two teenagers raped a 13 year old boy. Why should we believe the claims of an Iranian judicial and political system that is tyrannical and which has a proven record of lying to cover up its violations of human rights?
In the case of Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, one possible and more plausible explanation (according to our gay contacts inside Iran) is that the 13 year old alleged rape victim may have been a willing participant in same-sex acts with the hanged youths. However, because Iranian law (like the laws of many western nations) deems that no person aged 13 is capable of sexual consent, consensual anal sex with a person of that age is automatically deemed to be sexual assault - the equivalent of statutory rape.
This explanation is plausible but still problematic, as Iranian law does not recognise the rape of a male. No such offence exists. Iranian law makes no distinction between consenting and non-consenting homosexual acts. Both are capital crimes. Rape of a male is not a named crime in Iran. Nor is sodomy by force.
The claim of homosexual rape was allegedly confirmed by the 13 year old boy’s father. Even if this is true, the father’s claim does not necessarily prove that a rape took place. No father in Iran would admit that his son willingly had gay sex.
It is therefore not surprising that the father said his son was raped. If it was shown that his son was a willing participant, his son would have been severely punished, possibly even hanged. The family would have become social pariahs for having a gay child.
It is entirely plausible, althought not an established fact, that when he was arrested the 13 year old, in order to avoid being punished, claimed he was raped and that his father backed up his claim. Any father would do this, in order to save his son from the hangman.
Our contacts inside Iran confirm that false allegations of rape are sometimes made by defendants who are accused of sex outside of marriage, and by their parents, in order to spare the family the social shame of having an adulterous daughter or a gay son and to save the defendant from execution. If they can convince the police and court that they were raped they may be spared execution.
Some people say that passers-by and people in the neighbourhoood claim to have witnessed the rape. These witnesses were never identified. Even if these alleged unnamed witnesses exist, their testimony may not reflect what actually happened.
Our LGB contacts inside Iran say that most straight Iranians who witness gay sex are bound to assume it is rape, especialy if a young boy is involved. To them, homosexuality is so vile and shameful that nobody would ever consent to it. Moreover, in the act orgasm, sex can sometimes appear violent and hurtful. For these two reasons, local people may have mistakenly concluded that the sex was coercive and the 13 year old was being raped. We cannot prove that this was the case but it is a possibility that needs to be considered.
The method of hanging was particularly barbaric; being specifically designed to cause a slow, painful death by strangulation.
According to our informants who contacted gay Iranians in Mashhad, Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni were or had been lovers, not rapists or child abusers. Witnesses report seeing them together at a private party in 2003. We cannot say for sure that these claims are true. But they should be considered, as we have no reason to doubt our previously reliable informants.
Our LGB contacts inside Iran have also advised us that the boys were of good character and that they came from decent, law-abiding families whose fathers had good jobs.
The execution of Mahmoud and Ayaz conforms to a pattern of state persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people by the Iranian clerical regime.
By instituting charges of rape, the Iranian authorities can conveniently discredit the victims, discourage public protests and deflect international condemnation. They may have consciously calculated that by charging the youths with the rape of a 13 year old there would be little Iranian or international sympathy for them.
There is no conclusive proof that our own direct LGB contacts inside Iran are right about this case. They might be wrong. But we are more willing to give them the benefit of doubt than put our faith in the allegations made by Iran’s conservative, anti-gay courts and media.
We do accept, however, that the full truth about this case may never be known.
Finally, whatever the truth may be, we oppose the death penalty, especially the execution of minors, which these teenagers were at the time of their alleged offences.
New evidence from Afdhere Jama, editor of the US queer Muslim magazine Huriyah
Afdhere Jama, editor of the US queer Muslim magazine Huriyah, has new evidence that supports the view that Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni were probably gay and probably hanged because of their homosexuality. He bases his belief on evidence he received from three people in the city of Mashhad, including information from a person who knows the family of Ayaz Marhoni.
Afdhere Jama states:
“According to my sources (in Mashhad), the boys were arrested about a year and couple of months before the execution. On the day of their arrest, five boys were fondling each other in a semi-public area. Their ages were 13, 14, 15, 15 (Mahmoud), and 17 (Ayaz). These are all boys that knew each other, and had homosexual relations with each other (possibly over a period of weeks or months).
“A woman called her civilian police husband who then tried to arrest them all (with the help of civilians), but only Ayaz, Mahmoud and a 13 year old boy were caught.
“Because the age of consent for men in Iran is 15, the 13 year old boy is automatically then classified raped by then15 year old Mahmoud and 17 year old Ayaz. So, in the eyes of the Iranian law, that boy was raped. Whether the other boys were a few years older or not is not even a question, not to mention whether he (the 13 year old) was a willing participant. Because the issue is homosexuality, it even carries a harsher sentence.
“It should be noted that none of the claims about ‘knife’ and ‘drunk’ are true, but trumped up claims to support how these ‘heterosexual’ boys raped a ‘heterosexual’ teen. The father of the 13 year old boy claimed his son was raped because in the conservative society of Iran it is much better to have a heterosexual raped son than a homosexual willing participant. Everyone and anyone from the east can identify with this.
“In reality, however, these boys faced many charges, including resisting arrest (for running away), disrupting public peace (because apparently the whole neighbourhood was in chaos because everyone wanted to hurt the boys who were committing homosexuality), public indecency (for having homosexual sex in public), and ultimately for homosexual/sodomy rape of men (which carries much tougher penalty than a heterosexual rape, for the 13 year old), etc.
“It should also be noted that the Quds daily (newspaper) Human Rights Watch relied on is a government-controlled news agency, who have in the past and the present contribute news only acceptable to the government. As far as I know, there are really no independent Iranian news agencies which dealt with this story - because they could not honestly deal with it and get away with it,” said Mr Jama.
Whatever doubts still remain, and there are some, on balance we are more inclined to believe Mr Jama’s contacts in Mashhad, rather than the official account promoted by the homophobic dictatorship in Tehran and its tame media, the Quds newspaper.
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