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.

Here’s how the story unfolded.

Shortly after the execution, the British gay rights organization Outrage! posted a release on its website titled “Iran executes gay teenagers.” Based on a translation of the ISNA story by Outrage!, and reports from the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and the website Iran Focus, the Outrage! release stated, “Two gay teenagers were publicly executed in Iran on 19 July 2005 for the ‘crime’ of homosexuality.” Outrage! correctly noted that under Iranian penal code, homosexual intercourse is punishable by death. They dismissed the allegation of rape under two possible scenarios: one, that it may have been a “trumped up charge to undermine public sympathy for the youths,” or two, that the 13-year-old boy was a “willing participant but that Iranian law (like UK law) deems that no person of that age is capable of sexual consent and that therefore any sexual contact is automatically deemed in law to be a sex assault.”

Peter Tatchell, a gay and human rights campaigner with Outrage!, was quoted in the release saying “this is just the latest barbarity by the Islamo-fascists in Iran…the entire country is a gigantic prison, with Islamic rule sustained by detention without trial, torture and state-sanctioned murder.” Tatchell criticized the British Labour government for “pursuing friendly relations with this murderous regime” and urged “the international community to treat Iran as a pariah state, break off diplomatic relations, impose trade sanctions and give practical support to the democratic and left opposition inside Iran.”

At about the same time, Andrew Sullivan posted an entry on his blog titled “Islamists Versus Gays” that also claimed that the two teenage boys were hanged by the “Islamo-fascist regime in Iran” for “being gay.” He published an e-mail from an unidentified gay soldier that read: “Your post on the Islamo-fascist hanging/murder of the two gay men confirmed for me that my recent decision to join the US military was correct. I have to stuff myself back in the closet…but our war on terror trumps my personal comfort at this point. Whenever my friends and family criticize–I’ll show ’em that link.” Sullivan concluded his original post by saying, “I’m saddened that more gay organizations haven’t rallied to the war against Muslim religious fanatics. This is our war too.”

Sullivan would soon get his wish. Outrage!’s release was quickly picked up by several gay bloggers, most notably Doug Ireland, as well as by online gay websites such as 365gay.com, planetout.com and pageoneq.com, all of which operated on the assumption that Marhoni and Asgari were “gay teenagers” executed for the charge of “homosexuality” itself. Gay City News and the Washington Blade also ran stories on the execution that covered both the hanging and the controversy surrounding it. In his debut as a columnist for the Blade, discredited former White House press corps member Jeff Gannon (a k a James Guckert) mentioned the executions, puzzlingly claiming that gay bloggers and media were not paying enough attention to the case.

Ireland’s initial blog entry, dated July 21, was titled “Iran Executes 2 Gay Teenagers” and included links to the ISNA article as it appears in Farsi on its website, the NCRI and Iran Focus stories and the Outrage! statement. Relying on Outrage!’s account and translation, Ireland concluded at the time that “the Iranian authorities are putting out a cover story that the two boys had participated in the rape of a 13-year-old.” He then accused the Murdoch-owned Times of London for repeating “the Iranian government’s story as a virtual statement of fact” (almost all mainstream Western news outlets, including the AP and the New York Times, eventually reported the incident as an execution of minors for rape). Like Outrage!, Ireland claimed “there is no mention of this Iranian government accusation in the original ISNA report.” Ireland urged readers to “follow the suggestion of the Human Rights Campaign which–citing this blog–has written to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demanding that she formally protest these executions.”

The HRC letter, dated July 22, called on the State Department of “the world’s greatest democracy” to issue an “immediate and strong condemnation” of the execution of “two Iranian teenagers” who were “hanged in a public square after being tortured for 14 months, simply for being caught having consensual sex.” It makes no mention of the rape allegations. (The State Department has taken no official position on the executions).

On July 26 the Log Cabin Republicans weighed in with a statement that began, “In the wake of news stories and photographs documenting the hanging of two gay Iranian teenagers, Log Cabin Republicans re-affirm their commitment to the global war on terror.” Log Cabin president Patrick Guerriero said, “This barbarous slaughter clearly demonstrates the stakes in the global war on terror. Freedom must prevail over radical Islamic extremism.” Their release too failed to mention allegations of rape. (The Log Cabin Republicans did not return phone calls requesting an interview).

The Dutch gay organization COC (Center for Culture and Leisure) also protested the execution of “two gay teenagers” in Iran and called on the Netherlands to strongly condemn the execution and pressure the EU to impose sanctions on Iran. (The Netherlands has been embroiled in a “Dutch-Muslim Culture War” since the murders of gay right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn and filmmaker Theo van Gogh [see Deborah Scroggins, June 27].) The EU eventually protested the execution as a matter of the execution of juveniles, but has taken no further action.

So it was that Outrage!’s press release came to inspire an escalating series of demands and actions: a quixotic barrage of letters to the Secretary of State (the United States maintains no diplomatic relations with Iran), appeals to the greatest democracy in the world to defend freedom against Islamic extremism, calls for the gay movement (and even individual would-be gay soldiers) to join the fight against “Islamo-fascism” and pleas to European governments to sever ties with Iran and impose sanctions–at a time when the EU was engaged in delicate negotiations with Iran over its nuclear capacity. The story of “two gay teenagers executed in Iran” was a compelling narrative that, particularly for gay organizations with little to no international experience, confirmed the universality of gay identity. It offered up an unambiguous conflict between “Islamo-fascism” and Western democracy, and perhaps most important, it placed acceptance of gay rights at the very heart of the latter.

But was the story accurate? And what steps did organizations take either to confirm its veracity or to gauge what effects their campaign might have in Iran? It appears that the answer to the second question is very little. By the weekend of July 23, officials at Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC)–all of whom were seeking further information before issuing statements–were alarmed at how quickly the story had spread across gay websites, listservs and institutions. They were dismayed that HRC, the largest LGBT organization in the United States, would take such decisive action without seeking expert advice. In an interview with The Nation, Steven Fisher, HRC’s communications director, acknowledged that they had not reached out to human rights groups but based their letter solely on news reports and blogs–all of which sourced their story back to the Outrage! press release. “We are in shock at how distorted this story has become and that we have reached the point where HRC would send a letter to the Secretary of State without doing research,” said Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of IGLHRC.

As for the accuracy of the story itself, the Outrage! press release that incited this storm claims that neither the original ISNA story nor the first NCRI report on the incident mentions sexual assault. But it appears that Outrage! was working from a faulty translation. According to Hadi Ghaemi, Human Rights Watch’s Iran researcher and a native Farsi speaker, the ISNA article was titled “Lavat beh Onf.” Ghaemi translates the statement as “homosexual act by coercion,” and Iranian lawyers he spoke to confirm that the expression amounts to a charge of homosexual rape.

Tatchell claims that Outrage! had the ISNA story translated by three separate Iranian dissidents, and he insists that it makes no mention of rape or force, though he indicated that that it was possible that HRW and Outrage! had examined different versions of the story. Several Farsi-speaking experts consulted by The Nation confirmed Ghaemi’s translation of the ISNA article as it appears on their website. As for the NCRI story posted on July 20 (which urges the EU to “cut off all dialogue with the religious fascism ruling Iran”), Tatchell is technically correct that it doesn’t mention rape or force. However, it also makes no reference to homosexuality and merely states, “the victims were charged with disrupting public order among other things.” An article that appeared in the Mashhad daily newspaper Quds on the morning of the execution identified the crime as rape and included an interview with the father of the 13-year-old alleged victim as well as corroborating testimony from witnesses. Several sources in Iran confirmed that major Iranian media outlets (which do not, it should be noted, enjoy press freedom under the clerical regime) uniformly listed the charge as rape.

Based on evidence collected from lawyers and human rights activists and from Iranian news sources, Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Project at Human Rights Watch, concludes, “There is no evidence that this was a consensual act. The only reason to think this is what appears to be a mistranslation of the ISNA article. A whole tissue of speculation has been woven around mistranslations and omissions and this has been solidified into a narrative that this is a gay rights case.”

Both Long and Ettelbrick expressed concern that interest in the case from some organizations and media outlets seems predicated on an identification of the teenagers as gay, and they worried that gay rights had in some cases been co-opted–intentionally or not–for other ideological purposes. “If you look at the pictures of these kids and see the terror in their eyes, does it become any less if they are gay or not gay, innocent or guilty? These kids were tortured. One was executed for crimes committed when he was a minor. Juvenile execution is wrong,” said Long. In an e-mail addressed to members of the gay community, Ettelbrick wrote, “It’s interesting that this case has suddenly drawn such a rapid and strong response when these abuses have been going on for years without a peep from US-based LGBT groups. Why now? Why just Iran?”

At least one of the gay organizations involved, HRC, seems exclusively interested in the incident as a matter of gay rights. When confronted with information from IGLHRC and HRW that the facts in this case were considerably more ambiguous than they originally appeared, HRC briefly removed the letter to Rice from its website (it is now back up). HRC’s Steven Fisher told The Nation that they now “want Sec. Rice and the administration to find out exactly what happened and to take actions to make this information available.” (A letter to Rice from US Representatives Barney Frank, Jan Schakowsky and Tom Lantos that expressed concerns over the “recent execution of two gay teenagers” made similar requests.)

When asked if HRC would continue to protest the executions if the rape charges proved accurate, Fisher said, “We would be relieved to learn that the charges of homosexual sex were wrong, and that this turned out to be a case of assault.” As an organization that focuses “on issues specific to the LGBT community,” Fisher said that HRC “does not have a position on the death penalty.” In his second post on the hangings, Doug Ireland noted that the controversy around the hangings demonstrates that American gay organizations and media have “little experience or background in evaluating, reporting on, or mobilizing around” the “problems of same-sexers in foreign cultures” and that they lack a “perspective that situates gay oppression within the broader context of the challenge to human rights, or engage with human rights issues that are not specifically gay.”

This sort of parochialism does not seem to underlie Outrage!’s role in the controversy. Tatchell, at least, is a committed gay and human rights activist who has been involved in campaigns for indigenous rights, opposed the war in Iraq and criticized the gay movement for prioritizing inclusion within the military. He twice attempted to perform citizen’s arrests on Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe for human rights abuses including torture. But in recent years Tatchell has joined a chorus of voices that criticize the left for being soft on Islamic fundamentalism. Shortly after the London bombings, Tatchell signed the United Against Terror statement, which attacks “those who apologize for the terrorists and who misrepresent terrorist atrocities as ‘resistance.'” Explaining his decision to sign the UAT statement, Tatchell wrote, “Today, the pseudo-left reveals its shameless hypocrisy and its wholesale abandonment of humanitarian values…. I used to be proud to call myself a leftist. Now I feel shame. Much of the left no longer stands for the values of universal human rights and international socialism.”

Perhaps most saliently, Tatchell has used his prominence as a gay activist to place gay issues at the center of the discussion of the conflict between Western secular humanism and Islamic fundamentalism. Most recently, in a statement issued after the London bombings, Outrage! warned that “gay venues could be bombed by Islamic terrorists. All gay bars and clubs should introduce bag and body searches. Muslim fundamentalists have a violent hatred of lesbians and gay men.” Tatchell and other members of Outrage! report that they have received death threats from Islamic fundamentalists, but did not offer any other evidence of a looming attack in their release. (In fact, the last time a gay bar was bombed in London, in Soho in 1999, the bomb was set by a white supremacist group.)

Given Tatchell’s recent statements, it seems likely that his ideological disposition caused him to look past or dismiss information that cast doubt on the “gay teenagers” story. But Outrage! came to the conclusions it did partly because of the thorny evidentiary issues that arise whenever human rights violations occur in states where civil society and freedom of the press are threatened. Where does the burden of proof lie? Tatchell for one believes that, “given the Iranian government’s record of executing gay people and putting out bare-faced lies to cover up their crimes, we should always treat any official Iranian version of events with great skepticism.” A subsequent post on the Outrage! website said, “We acknowledge there are conflicting reports. It is difficult to be certain about the truth. But on balance we believe the evidence points to the youths being hanged for same-sex relations, rather than rape.”

HRW’s Long agrees that “skepticism about official accounts in any country with a record of rights violations–be it Iran or the US–is merited.” But Long, Ghaemi, Ettelbrick and other human rights activists disagree with Outrage!’s conclusions. Discounting the ISNA report, about which there appears to be at the very least a translation discrepancy, Long says that the conclusion that the teenagers were hanged for same-sex relations was “woven from one source–the fact that a website [NCRI] which has a tendentious record of distorting Iranian news in the name of its political agenda omitted the reference to rape. That’s not enough, in my view, to support all the sweeping and speculative claims that have been made.”

Outrage! based its conclusions not only on the NCRI news story and its ISNA translation but also on consultations with dissident Iranians, some of whom, Tatchell confirmed, are affiliated with the NCRI, which he describes as a “respected democratic opposition movement.” (Outrage! claims it also consulted independent Iranian dissidents and activists still in Iran.) In press releases and interviews, Tatchell objects to the classification of the NCRI as a “‘terrorist organization’ by the US State Department” and calls it “a smear.” Canada and the EU also deem the NCRI a terrorist organization; it is considered the political wing of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK or MKO), a militant group based in Iraq that has reportedly fed information on Iran to key neocons in the Bush Administration. Outrage! explains that while they “do not share the politics of the NCRI…it has played a heroic role in resisting the clerical fascist regime in Iran and campaigning for democracy and human rights. The NCRI is no more a terrorist organization than the African National Congress in South Africa or the anti-Nazi resistance in occupied Europe during World War Two.” In an interview with The Nation, Tatchell described the NCRI as “a key liberation movement inside Iran that deserves international support.”

Janet Afary, author of Foucault and the Iranian Revolution and the president of the International Society for Iranian Studies, strongly disputes Tatchell’s assessment of the group. Afary characterizes the NCRI as a “discredited exile group” and says “the democratic opposition in Iran does not recognize the organization as an ally.” Indeed, former members of the NCRI have publicly accused the organization of brainwashing, torture and forced separation from spouses and children. Ervand Abrahamian, professor of history at Baruch College, described the NCRI as a “cult” and says “they have as much credibility as Chalabi and the Iraqi enthusiasts for liberation and invasion.” None of this necessarily means that the NCRI is wrong in this case, but given that the NCRI has long agitated for international sanctions on Iran, it is abundantly clear that it should not be considered an impartial source.

The different camps in this controversy also have different prescriptions for what form the international protest should take. HRW issued a letter, signed by Ghaemi and Michael Bochenek of the Children’s Rights Division, petitioning the Iranian government to cease the execution of minors. Amnesty likewise urged the Iranian government to stop executing minors in its public statement. IGLHRC released background information on previous executions in Iran, but did not write to any government bodies.

Outrage!, by contrast, echoing the NCRI, called upon Western governments to place international sanctions on Iran, and specifically urged Britain to cease diplomatic relations. Tatchell does, however, oppose military action against Iran. “Regime change must come from within, and not be imposed by Western intervention. We must not repeat the mistakes of Iraq,” he said.

What are the possible ramifications of calling for sanctions against Iran based upon hazy evidence that it executed two teenagers for consensual homosexual sex? Ettelbrick, who took exception to the “very strong anti-Muslim language” in the Outrage! statement, expressed concern that given both the precarious state of human rights in Iran and global tensions between the US/UK and the Muslim world, such statements might “play into anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment in the name of gay rights” and possibly “put gay people in those countries at further risk.” Tatchell responds to such criticism by saying, “We’ve never attacked anyone’s race or ethnicity, and we’ve never attacked Islam as such, only the anti-humanitarian fundamentalist version of Islam as exemplified by the ayatollahs’ dictatorship.” But Tatchell remains firm on his characterizations of Iran, Islamic extremism and Outrage!’s call for international sanctions. “We’re not going to apologize for condemning the Iranian tyranny as an Islamo-fascist dictatorship. That is what it is. And this phrase is used by progressive Muslims to denounce the fundamentalists and by democratic and left opponents of the Tehran regime,” said Tatchell. In previous articles unrelated to the execution, Tatchell has criticized the “the left’s political somersaults and ethical acrobatics…on the issue of Islamic fundamentalism” and complained that “the threat of being labeled ‘Islamophobic’ is inducing a new wave of moral paralysis.”

HRW’s Scott Long, however, worries about the way the incident has played into “preconceptions that have partly been created by the atmosphere of the war on terror.” He also emphasizes the necessity, in this climate, of a sober evaluation of evidence to conduct an effective campaign in defense of human rights in countries like Iran. “Iran is a country about which you can say almost anything and be believed. Islam is a religion about which you can say anything and be believed. Iran’s human rights record is abominable, and religious extremism of all sorts is dangerous. This is obvious, but it doesn’t need exaggeration. But on both counts people have been all too ready to presume something worse and different than what took place. I think there are a lot of people on the left that think they need to prove their manhood vis-à-vis Islamists and Islamic states because they are being baited by people on the right.”