Living in the shadow of religious pressure and social discrimination, medical student Ahmed Fatah says there’s no way he could ever tell anyone about his sexuality.
"I devote most of my time to my studies to forget about the discrimination I face from society. People see me as a very successful guy, but inside my soul I’m very sad," Fatah said. "I’m sad because our society dictates that I must marry one of the girls in the neighbourhood because it’s religious law," he added.
Homosexuality remains a taboo subject in this Muslim society.
"What for me is love, unfortunately, is punishable by death," Fatah lamented.
Since 2001, an amendment to the 1990 Penal Code has made homosexual behaviour between consenting adults a crime. In that year, the Revolutionary Command Council issued a decree making the offences of prostitution, homosexuality, incest and rape punishable by death, according to Amnesty International.
It is believed that the sudden introduction of the death penalty for these acts was tied to a desire by Saddam Hussein to win the support of Islamic conservatives. The law has not been changed since the US-led invasion of the country. Under Islamic law, the penalty for men engaging in anal sex is also death.
The new Iraqi constitution provides protection against discrimination on a variety of grounds, including sex, religion, belief, opinion and social and economic status, but fails to explicitly mention homosexuality. However, Article 17 of the new Iraqi Constitution states that “each person has the right to personal privacy as long as it does not violate the rights of others or general morality”.
"I survived, but my partner died in front of my eyes."
Nevertheless, discrimination against homosexuals remains rampant. "Muslims believe that homosexual behaviour is an offence against Islam and anyone who behaves this way should be sentenced to death without compassion,” said Sheikh Ali Amar, a cleric at a mosque in the capital, Baghdad.
Under the regime of Saddam Hussein, homosexuality was punished using the harshest of methods, often involving torture.
According to estimates from the Ministry of Human Rights, more than 3,000 men were tortured by Hussein's officials for expressing their sexuality between 1991 and 2003.
"I was taken by the police in 2002 because I was seen with my partner near one of the bridges in the capital at night. We suffered for six months with torture in prison," said Maruan Kalif, who bears both physical and psychological scars.
"They raped me with the most terrible things… as I cried they hit me with their shoes and belts," Kalif recalled grimly. "I survived, but my partner died in front of my eyes." Kalif’s partner died in prison after five days of continuous rape by officials, according to Kalif. "The Iraqi government needs much more time to open up to the problem of homosexuality, because it’s a very sensitive case," commented Hamam Ali, a senior official at the Human Rights Ministry.
So-called “honour killing,” the murder of a family member by a relative to protect the family's reputation, often occurs in Iraq when a man is believed to be gay, according to the Human Rights Ministry.
Article 111 of the Iraqi Penal Code exempts from prosecution and punishment men who kill other men or female relatives in defence of their family's honour. "He who discovers his wife, one of his female relatives committing adultery or a male relative engaged in sodomy and kills, wounds or injures one of them, is exempted from any penalty,” the law states.
"Killing for honour has been a common practice for years, and a short prison sentence for the killer is common."
Fifteen cases of honour killings have been reported in the past two years for crimes against homosexuals in the capital alone, according to a Baghdad-based lawyers’ association. Abu Qussay said he killed his son after discovering he was gay. He said he was now considered a hero by his friends. "I hanged him in my house in front of his brother to give an example to all of them and prevent them from doing the same," Qussay said proudly.
After the father of two was arrested for the murder, he was charged with the killing and then released a month later when his lawyer explained why his client had committed the crime.
"Killing for honour has been a common practice for years, and a short prison sentence for the killer is common," said Ibraheem Daud, a lawyer specialised in family crimes based in the capital. Since 1994, Daud has been involved with nearly 65 cases of honour killings involving gay men.
Isolated and secret groups have, however, formed locally to provide support to homosexual men, despite popular discrimination. "We’ve set up an organisation to help homosexuals suffering from discrimination and have successfully helped more than 170 people since January 2005," said Mustafa Salim, a spokesman for the Rainbow for Life organisation.
Nevertheless, most Iraqi homosexuals expect a long wait before they can openly adopt their preferred lifestyles. "I'm not happy,” said Fatah. “I don't want to hang around with friends and talk about girls."