Iran: Death sentences for LGBTQI activists must be immediately overturned

The Iranian authorities must immediately quash the conviction and the death sentences against LGBTQI rights activist Zahra (Sareh) Sedighi-Hamadani and Elham Choubdar for the vaguely-worded and broadly-defined charge of ‘corruption on earth’. The sentences, issued by a Revolutionary Court in flagrant violation of the right to life, freedom of expression and due process, signal a deeply alarming escalation of  persecution of individuals in connection with gender identity, sexual orientation and  LGBTQI activism. 

On 4 September 2022, the Kurdish human rights organisation Hengaw reported that LGBTQI rights advocate Zahra Seddiqi-Hamedani (known as Sareh), 31, from the Kurdish city of Naqadeh, as well as Elham Choubdar, 24, from the northwestern city of Urmia (also known as Orumiyeh), were sentenced to  death by the Revolutionary Court in Urmia in Western Azerbaijan province on the charge of ‘corruption on earth’, which is punishable by death. The sentences were communicated to the pair at Urmia Central Prison over the weekend. 

The exact details of the verdicts against Zahra (Sareh) Seddiqi-Hamedani and Elham Choubdar are not yet known. On 6 September 2022, Amnesty International reported on the death sentences and stated that information it had obtained indicated that the conviction and sentences charges were ‘related to the women’s real or perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and in the case of Zahra, her peaceful LGBTI rights activism’. In January 2022, the authorities had accused Sareh Seddiqi-Hamedani of spreading ‘corruption on earth’, including through ‘promoting homosexuality’, ‘communication with anti-Islamic Republic media channels’ and ‘promoting Christianity’.  The first two accusations related to her advocacy for LGBTI rights, including on social media platforms and through appearing on a BBC documentary aired in May 2021 about the abuses that LGBTI people suffer in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

 

A long history of hate and discrimination

The sentences issued against Zahra (Sareh) Seddiqi-Hamedani and Elham Choubdar, which come in the wake of increasing anti-LGBTQI sentiments and statements made by the country’s president, in which he has demonised and dehumanised individuals for their sexual orientation, are deeply disturbing. In a public speech on 1 September, President Ebrahim Raisi – against whom there is evidence of involvement in crimes against humanity –propagated hate against the LGBTQI community and called homosexuality the ‘ugliest of behaviours’, ‘ugliness and filth’, and a ‘wretched’ act. The president’s comments came against the backdrop of a history of Islamic Republic officials spewing hate against the marginalised community. In March 2022, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei also doubled down on his long-standing rhetoric against the LGBTQI community and called homosexuality ‘shameful’ and examples of ‘moral vulgarity and moral chaos’ and ‘sexual chaos’.

“The authorities must immediately overturn these sentences and release Seddiqi-Hamedani and Choubdar,” said Saloua Ghazouani, ARTICLE 19’s Director for Middle East and North Africa.  “No one should be subjected to discrimination, violence and violations of their human rights due to their gender identity and expression, sexual orientation and peaceful human rights activism, including in relation to LGBTQI rights.” 

State-affiliated news agencies and the media center of Iran’s Judiciary reported that the pair have been convicted of ‘trafficking Iranian women and girls’ to a neighbouring country. To date no evidence has been provided for these claims. ARTICLE 19 notes with alarm the Iranian authorities’ long-standing practice of extracting ‘confessions’ – both self-incriminating as well as those that incriminate other individuals – through torture and other ill-treatment, as well as their precedent in fabricating criminal charges against human rights defenders in cases where they foresee an international outcry in response. 

Zahra (Sareh) Sediqi-Hamdani was arrested and arbitrarily detained in October 2021 by the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) near Iran’s border with Turkey while she was attempting to enter Turkey in order to seek international protection.1 Following her arrest, she was forcibly disappeared for  53 days. During this period, in which it later became clear that she had been  held in solitary confinement and denied her fair trial rights, including access to a lawyer, she says the authorities subjected her to treatment that violated the absolute prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment, including intense interrogations accompanied by verbal abuse and insults directed at her gender and sexual identity and appearance and threats of execution and to deny her custody of her children. 

Pending their release, the Iranian authorities must ensure that Zahra (Sareh) Sediqi-Hamdani and Elham Choubdar have regular access to the lawyers of their choosing, and to their families. They must be protected from torture and other ill-treatment. All charges directly or indirectly related to their peaceful activism or LGBTQI identity must be dropped.

LGBTQI rights in Iran 

‘And we resist to the end for our feelings. Whether with death or freedom, we will remain true to ourselves.’ – Zahra (Sareh) Sediqi-Hamdani in a video circulated by 6Rang on 7 December 2021 

Discrimination and human rights violations against the  LGBTQI community are entrenched in law and practice in Iran. In his January 2021 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on Iran, Javaid Rehman, expressed concerns about widespread dicrimination against individuals from the LGBTQI community and criminalisation of consensual same-sex sexual activity, including through making such acts punishable by death. He further added that ‘[t]he criminalisation of same-sex consensual acts legitimises violence by State actors and private individuals, including the use of torture, beatings and rape by law enforcement and vigilantes’. 

“These shocking death sentences must acutely highlight that Iran’s LGBTQI community, who are socially, politically, and legally targeted and criminalised, is even at further risk of persecution and violence.  Urgent and robust action is needed to hold the Iranian authorities to account for these ongoing violations and to protect the lives and safety of Sareh and Elham and many others whose stories are sadly untold,” said Saloua Ghazouani. 

As ARTICLE 19 has outlined, Iran’s laws criminalise various forms of gender and sexual expression of the LGBTQI community, including consensual sexual relations between adults of the same sex. It subjects such ‘offences’ to punishments that range from flogging to the death penalty.  

ARTICLE 19 highlights that a legal structure that criminalises various aspects of the lives of the LGBTQI people leaves individuals belonging to the LGBTQI community at risk of violence, hate crimes and discrimination, both at the hands of state actors and non-state actors, who can act with impunity.  Without urgent action to substantially amend the legal framework in line with international law and standards, the state will continue to implement these clampdowns and repressive measures. The cases of  Zahra (Sareh) Seddiqi-Hamedani and Elham Choubdar also show how  anti LGBTQI laws are repeatedly combined with other penal laws (such as ‘corruption on earth’) to create multiple charges and garner the highest sentences possible. This phenomenon of opportunistic and parallel charging against LGBTQI communities has been documented in a number of other countries. 

LGBTQI individuals are harassed, threatened, and arrested in Iran on a daily basis, often after being surveilled on the apps and social platforms they use, as further reported by ARTICLE 19 in 2018. Research findings and local experts’ testimonies  indicate that there are sporadic however state-sponsored monitoring of apps used by LGBTQI people. This is coupled with prevalent reports on abuse of detainees, including LGBTQI detainees, by prison guards and police, as well as violations of fair trial standards.2 The new charges and the actions against taken in the  Zahra (Sareh) Seddiqi-Hamedani and Elham Choubdar cases indicate increasing clampdowns on the community which may include further digital patrolling, surveillance, and eventual prosecutions. 

Calls:

ARTICLE 19 calls on the Iranian authorities to:

  1. Ensure that the death sentences against Zahra (Sareh) Seddiqi-Hamedan and Elham Choubdar are immediately quashed and that the two individuals are released;
  2. Pending their release, ensure that Zahra (Sareh) Seddiqi-Hamedan and Elham Choubdar are granted regular access to lawyers of their choosing and to their families and are protected from torture and other ill-treatment; 
  3. Immediately quash all convictions and sentences imposed on individuals in relation to their gender identity and expression and sexual orientation, and release those who are arbitrarily detained on such grounds; 
  4. Urgently repeal all provisions, including those includeed in the Islamic Penal Code, criminalising expressions of gender identity and sexual orientation, as well as consensual sexual conduct. The death penalty must never be used as a punishment for expressions of sexual orientation or gender identity or consensual sexual conduct. 
  5.  Put an end to the online and offline surveillance of individuals for reasons that relate to their gender identity and expression and sexual orientation, and fully respect their right to privacy 
  6. Immidately put an end to the torture and other ill-treatment, including physical and sexual assault of individuals in detention centers and prisons, and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice in proceedings that adhere to internaitonal fair trial standards. 
  7. Ensure that all allegations of torture and other ill-treatment are promptly, independently and impartially investigated in line with international law and standards. 

Mirroring some of the calls made in the wake of queer Egyptian  activist Sarah Hegazy’s case  and the murder of Iranian Alireza Fazeli-Monfared, we urge international agencies to acknowledge the conditions of extreme persecution afaced by LGBTQI people from Iran and other similar contexts when considering their asylum applications and providing them safe passage. 

We further call on social media and other communications companies to understand the risks faced by the community and to implement adequate safety measures to reduce their abusive utilisation by law enforcement and prosecuting teams in such cases. 

Finally, ARTICLE 19 continues to call on international and Iranian diaspora media to increase their coverage of the lives and violations faced by LGBTQI Iranians, and to increase education and understanding about LGBTQI rights issues. Increased visibility and education about LGBTQI people and their lives is vital to support the LGBTQI community to flourish without fear.