Dissident Watch: Mehdi Kazemi
by Andrew M. Hollin
Middle East Quarterly
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's September 24, 2007 speech at Columbia University largely resonated with the audience, perhaps in reaction to university president Lee Bollinger's stern introduction. Of all Ahmadinejad's assertions, only his declaration that "in Iran, we don't have homosexuals" was met with widespread disbelief.
Columbia students may have laughed, but Ahmadinejad's statement should cause more chills than chuckles when considered from the perspective of Iranian citizens. The regime has executed more than 4,000 homosexuals since the 1979 revolution, but Ahmadinejad has further accelerated regime persecution of homosexuals. On January 10, 2008, for example, a judge sentenced two men convicted of homosexual acts to be executed by "throwing them into a river from [great] height."
Homosexuals who escaped Iran have fought to avoid having to return on the basis that their lives might be threatened. In 2004, Israfil Shiri, a former member of the paramilitary Basij, an organization charged with upholding revolutionary values, committed suicide by self-immolation upon hearing that he had been denied asylum in the United Kingdom.
The following year, Hussein Nasseri killed himself after his U.K. asylum appeal was refused and he was ordered back to Iran.
Nineteen-year-old Mehdi Kazemi was more fortunate. Kazemi went to England as a student in 2004 and learned shortly after that his Iranian boyfriend had been arrested for sodomy and executed. Fearing for his life upon his return, Kazemi applied unsuccessfully for asylum in England. A year later, his application for asylum in the Netherlands was also rejected.
The British statement explaining the denial of asylum conceded that Iranian authorities execute gay men but suggested that homosexuals could live in Iran if they were "discreet." After a public backlash, the British government changed its position and granted Kazemi "unconditional" asylum for five years. Two dozen members of parliament are now calling on Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to justify the Home Office's "discretion" argument.
The political Left in the United States and Europe demands gay rights and tolerance at home but remains silent at the oppression of homosexuals in Islamic countries. Kazemi may not have wished to be a public figure, but by fighting his extradition, he has forced British politicians to confront the Islamic Republic's unpleasant realities. Indeed, rather than fade into anonymity, Kazemi appears determined to keep the issue alive. In a May 2008 interview, he told The Independent, "I knew that the people of this country accepted homosexuality and that the government gave equal rights to people regardless of their sexuality, so when my asylum claim was refused, I was shocked and very disappointed. I had expected more. I had expected to be given the same rights as people here."
Andrew M. Hollin is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania in political science and a former Middle East Forum intern.
 MSNBC, Sept. 25, 2007.
 The Washington Post, Sept. 24, 2007.
 The Independent (London), Mar. 6, 2008.
 AdvarNews.com (Tehran), Jan. 10, 2008.
 Independent Race and Refugee News Network (London), Oct. 26, 2004.
 BBC News, Apr. 19, 2005.
 CNN.com/Europe, May 20, 2008.
 "Asylum: Mehdi Kazemi," comments by Lord Waheed Alli, House of Lords Debates, Mar. 11, 2008; The Independent, Mar. 6, 2008; TimesOnline (London), Mar. 13, 2008.
 CNN.com/Europe, May 20, 2008.
 The Independent, June 23, 2008.
 The Independent, May 23, 2008.
Related Topics: Immigration, Iran, Sex and gender relations | Fall 2008 MEQ
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