Witnesses to an Execution
On July 19 in the northeastern city of Mashhad, Iran, two teenagers, Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari, were put to death for a crime involving homosexual intercourse. Asgari, at least, was underage at the time of the offense. Before the execution Marhoni and Asgari were detained for approximately fourteen months and received 228 lashes each for drinking, disturbing the peace and theft. Despite appeals from the defendants' lawyers and protests by Iranian human rights activists such as Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Supreme Court upheld the verdict and sentence, which was carried out by public hanging.
The hangings were first brought to international attention by the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA), a state-controlled wire service. A brief article posted on ISNA's website on the day of the execution included three photographs of the youths. One depicts them blindfolded on the gallows with two hooded men securing nooses around their necks. In another they are visibly shaken and in tears as they are interviewed by journalists en route to the hanging. Undoubtedly these searing photographs helped focus international attention on the execution, but the text of the accompanying article remains at the center of a dispute over the nature of their crime and the role of Western gay and human rights organizations in publicizing the case.
The dispute hinges on one question: Did Asgari and Marhoni engage in consensual sex (either with each other or with others), or did they gang rape at knifepoint (along with several other participants whose fates are undetermined) an unidentified 13-year-old boy?
Organizations that mostly or exclusively focus on gay issues, including the Human Rights Campaign, the Log Cabin Republicans and Britain's Outrage!, have asserted that Marhoni and Asgari merely had consensual sex and have denounced the executions as antigay persecution. Gay websites and bloggers Doug Ireland and Andrew Sullivan repeated versions of this story, mostly citing Outrage!'s report on the matter (in subsequent posts Ireland--a longtime Nation contributor--has taken a more agnostic view).
Meanwhile, in light of evidence from within Iran that the teenagers were convicted of rape, international human rights groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) have urged organizations to refrain from casting the incident as a gay issue. While they leave open the possibility that Marhoni and Asgari were hanged simply for engaging in consensual homosexual sex, they have emphasized that the executions are a violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Iran is a signatory to both), which prohibit the execution of minors.
Regardless of which version of the story proves correct--if indeed the truth is ever known--the execution of Marhoni and Asgari was a heinous act that ought to worry all those concerned with human rights and opposed to the death penalty. Human rights groups have documented numerous cases in which Iran has executed its citizens on charges of sodomy and adultery. According to Amnesty International, "so far this year, Iran has executed at least four persons for crimes committed when they were children, including one who is still a child."
In 2004, 97 percent of all known executions took place in China, Iran, Vietnam and the United States; in the number of juvenile executions since 1990, Iran ranks second (fourteen) to the United States (nineteen) which just this past March categorically banned the death penalty for those under 18.
There's no question that the executions of Marhoni and Asgari deserve fierce condemnation. And it remains a possibility that this was, indeed, a violation not just of human rights but of gay rights--though it is highly unlikely that the two self-identified as gay. What's worth exploring is how our perception of the case has been refracted through the prism of ideological debates over the nature and danger of radical Islam, and how assumptions about the "clash of civilizations" that supposedly pits enlightened, secular, humane Western society against backward, theocratic, oppressive Islamic society seem to have impaired our ability to get the facts straight. The story also reveals much about the challenge of pursuing gay and human rights in a political climate infused by the US-led global "war on terror," anxiety over the recent election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran and growing fears about Islamic fundamentalism, particularly in Europe, in the wake of the London bombings last month.