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Iran court sentences two activists to death for ‘promoting homosexuality’

Zahra (Sareh) Sedighi arrested at Turkish border last October



Zahra (Sareh) Sedighi. (Photo courtesy of the Mizan News Agency via Iran Human Rights)

A court in Iran has sentenced two LGBTQ and intersex activists to death after their arrest for “promoting homosexuality.”

Iran Human Rights, a Norway-based NGO that champions human rights in Iran, on Tuesday noted the Urmia Revolutionary Court in Iran’s West Azerbaijan province sentenced Zahra (Sareh) Sedighi, 31, and Elham Coobdar, 24, to death after it convicted them of “corruption on earth” charges.

Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps on Oct. 27, 2021, arrested Sedighi while she was trying to enter Turkey. 

Police in Iraqi Kurdistan reportedly detained Sedighi for three weeks after she spoke with BBC Persian about the treatment of LGBTQ and intersex people in the region. Sedighi had reportedly entered Iran in order to cross the country’s border with Turkey and ask for asylum.

Iran Human Rights cited Iranian media reports that said Sedighi and Coobdar faced charges of “deceiving and smuggling women and young girls to a regional country.”

“This is while human rights sources and LGBTQI+ activists stress that Zahra and Elham were arrested and convicted for their activism,” said Iran Human Rights. “This claim was confirmed in reports aired on IRIB (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting) and other official media that cited ‘promoting homosexuality’ as one of the reasons for the two activists’ arrests.”

Iran Human Rights said Sedighi and Coobdar learned the court sentenced them to death on Sept. 1.

“Zahra Sadighi and Elham Choobdar were sentenced to death without due process and in unfair legal proceedings based on forced confessions,” said Iran Human Rights Director Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam. “Their convictions have no legal validity. Islamic Republic authorities have also cited promoting homosexuality as one of the reasons for their arrests. Their lives can be saved by immediate and strong reactions by the international community and civil society.”

ILGA Asia on Tuesday described the death sentences as “concerning.”

Iran is among the handful of countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain punishable by death.


Middle East

Houthi court sentences 13 people to death for homosexuality in Yemen

Iran-backed rebel group controls large swaths of country



(Illustration by Peter Hermes Furian/Bigstock)

Reports indicate a court in Yemen has sentenced to death 13 people who had been charged with homosexuality.

Agence France-Presse reported the court in Ibb Governorate, which Iran-backed Houthi rebels control, announced the sentences on Feb. 4. The province’s main city is roughly 125 miles south of Sanaa, the rebel-held Yemeni capital.

The State Department’s 2022 human rights report notes Yemeni law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual relations, “with the death penalty as a sanction under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law.” The report also indicates there were “no known executions of LGBTQI+ persons in recent years.”

The Houthis have been attacking commercial ships in the Red Sea since Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023, launched a surprise attack against southern Israel from the Gaza Strip. The U.S. and the U.K. last month launched air strikes against the Iran-backed rebel group. 

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Middle East

Meta urged to make platforms safer for LGBTQ users in the Middle East, North Africa

Human Rights Watch, advocacy groups have launched #SecureOurSocials campaign



(YouTube screen capture)

The parent company of Facebook and Instagram is facing calls to improve the safety of LGBTQ people on its platforms in the Middle East and North Africa.

Human Rights Watch, Social Media Exchange (SMEX), INSM Foundation for Digital Rights, Helem in Lebanon and Damj Association in Tunisia have initiated the #SecureOurSocials campaign, which emphasizes the need for transparency from Meta.

The campaign, inspired by Human Rights Watch’s “Digital Targeting and Its Offline Consequences for LGBT People in the Middle East and North Africa” 2023 report, sheds light on the digital threats faced by the LGBTQ community. The report revealed that security forces in countries like Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia exploit platforms such as Facebook and Instagram to target and harass LGBTQ people, leading to offline consequences like arbitrary detention and torture.

Rasha Younes, acting LGBT rights deputy director at Human Rights Watch, urged Meta to be a global leader in making social media safe for everyone. The #SecureOurSocials campaign aims to engage Meta for increased transparency and accountability, urging the company to publish meaningful data on user safety investment, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.

LGBTQ people that Human Rights Watch interviewed reported severe real-life consequences; including job loss, family violence, forced relocations and mental health issues due to online targeting on Facebook and Instagram. The campaign calls on Meta to address harmful content, be more responsive to user complaints and enforce policies consistently.

The main goals of the #SecureOurSocials campaign include: 

• Protecting the safety of users

• Addressing online targeting

• Consistent enforcement of policies

• Investment in user safety

• Human rights integration 

“Governments and tech companies share the responsibility for protecting human rights, especially for LGBT individuals.”said Younes. 

Despite previous engagements with Meta, concerns raised by Human Rights Watch said its concerns have not been adequately addressed. 

The #SecureOurSocials campaign provides solutions for Meta to ensure the safety of LGBTQ users and urges the company to disclose its annual investment in user safety in the region. It also emphasizes the responsibility of social media companies to respect human rights with nondiscrimination and privacy policies and freedom of expression.

Mohamad Najem of SMEX outlined key recommendations directed at Meta, addressing the urgent need to safeguard user rights, particularly for the LGBTQ community. 

Najem underscored the importance of including rights, nondiscrimination and privacy policies and freedom of expression in Meta’s policies. He called for measures to avoid infringing on human rights, systematic handling of issues and the identification and addressing of human rights impacts stemming from their services. 

The recommendations further urged Meta to respect the right to freedom of expression, protect against unauthorized access to personal data and consider the specific experiences of discrimination and marginalization, particularly those faced by LGBTQ people in the Middle East and North Africa. 

“Meta needs to ensure that it respects the rights of people, especially when it comes to unauthorized access to their personal data,” added Najem.

Najem highlighted Meta’s struggles with content moderation, pointing out overenforcement and underenforcement issues. The insufficient investment in human content moderators and heavy reliance on automation were identified as undermining Meta’s ability to effectively address content targeting LGBTQ individuals.

Meta’s role in mitigating human rights abuses against LGBTQ individuals on its platforms is highlighted, with the campaign demanding accountability and transparency in policy application. Governments in the Middle East and North Africa are also urged to respect and protect the rights of LGBTQ people, promoting non-discriminatory laws online and offline.

A Meta spokesperson has not responded to the Washington Blade’s request for comment.

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Middle East

Brother of former Israeli hostage returns to D.C.

Gili Roman’s sister was held in Gaza Strip for 53 days



Gili Roman in D.C. on Jan. 18, 2024 (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Yarden Roman-Gat, her husband, Alon Gat and their 3-year-old daughter, Geffen, were visiting her in-laws in Be’eri, a kibbutz that is near the border of Israel and the Gaza Strip, on Oct. 7, 2023.

Hamas shortly after 6 a.m. launched a surprise attack against communities in southern Israel from the Palestinian enclave it governs. Four militants placed Roman-Gat and her family into a car with two other Be’eri residents. They jumped out of it as it approached Gaza. Roman-Gat handed her daughter to her husband and they ran away.

The group the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization held Roman-Gat hostage in Gaza until her release on Nov. 29. Her brother, Gili Roman, a gay teacher and member of Israel’s Nemos LGBTQ+ Swimming Club who lives in Tel Aviv, returned to D.C. last week.

“She’s doing well,” Roman told the Washington Blade on Jan. 18 during an interview at a hotel near Union Station.

Roman-Gat spoke to “60 Minutes” less than a month after her release. Roman shared with the Blade details about his sister’s time in captivity.

He said she was alone, with three men guarding her.

“For 53 days she was observed and subjected to the will of three guys,” said Roman. “We are relieved because she was not abused, and we know that other people were abused and violently treated. This is not her case, but it was still a very traumatic experience.”

Militants on Oct. 7 killed her mother-in-law and kidnapped her sister-in-law, Carmel Gat, who remains in Gaza. 

Roman said his sister learned militants had murdered her mother-in-law when she overheard “a very small” part of a song on Israeli radio that had been dedicated to her. 

“This is how she found out that she had been murdered, that her sister-in-law is still a hostage,” Roman told the Blade. “Since they didn’t talk about her daughter and her husband, she concluded that they are alive.”

He said the men who held his sister hostage were members of Hamas and were religious. Roman told the Blade that some of them had university degrees and they explained to Roman-Gat why she had been kidnapped. 

“She was a tool of war,” said Roman. “They told her many times it is not about Gaza and it’s not about Palestine. It’s not about the Palestinians.”

“The only reason that they’re keeping her is for the global fight for Islam, is a sort of global jihad,” he added. “Of course, they do not expect to get a Muslim empire, now. She’s just a tool in the long run ambition of them to have a Muslim empire around the world. This is pretty harsh, and they constantly told her that. This is the kind of extremism that she lived in and had to protect herself (from.)”

Roman said they also forced his sister to wear a hijab.

“She said it became her only shield,” he told the Blade.

Roman said his sister didn’t realize she was going to be released until shortly before it happened. Roman told the Blade the militants wanted her to change out of the hijab she had been wearing and to appear happy, but “she wasn’t willing to do that.”

Roman-Gat reunited with her daughter, husband and her family at a Tel Aviv hospital a few hours after her release.

“It was super exciting,” recalled Roman. “It’s like the birth of somebody you already know … it was very, very moving.”

From left: Gili Roman celebrates Hanukkah with his niece, Geffen, and his sister, Yarden Roman-Gat, last month in Israel. (Photo courtesy of Gili Roman)

The Israeli government has said Hamas militants killed roughly 1,200 people on Oct. 7, including at least 260 partygoers and others at an all-night music festival in Re’im, a kibbutz that is a few miles southwest of Be’eri. Carmel Gat is among the roughly 130 people who Hamas continues to hold hostage in Gaza.   

The Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry says more than 25,000 people have died in the enclave since the war began. Israel after Oct. 7 cut electricity and water to Gaza and stopped most food and fuel shipments.

Hezbollah, which the U.S. and Israel have designated a terrorist organization, has launched rockets from Lebanon into northern Israel.

The Houthis in Yemen have attacked commercial ships in the Red Sea since Oct. 7. The U.S. and the U.K. this month launched air strikes against the Iran-backed rebel group. 

Roman told the Blade that many Israelis do not feel safe in their own country.

“We are all feeling so fragile,” he said.

Roman said his sister thinks that “somebody could take me” when she is on the street.

“I told her I feel exactly the same thing … like somebody can take my family and I will not see them for 100 days and I will not see them anymore,” Roman told the Blade.

He also pointed out more than 100,000 people have been displaced from southern and northern Israel since Oct. 7.  

“We are under severe attacks from the north as well,” said Roman. “People are displaced. They don’t know when they are going to go back home. They know some of their houses have been attacked, demolished, bombarded.”

Roman noted Israelis who live near the West Bank are also concerned “their towns are going to be infiltrated” by militants who have dug tunnels. He also said there are reports of hostages and Israel Defense Forces soldiers killed “almost every day.” (The IDF on Monday said 24 soldiers were killed in Gaza.) 

“We are feeling overwhelmed with fear and anxiety,” said Roman.

The International Court of Justice earlier this month heard legal arguments in South Africa’s case that accuses Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, is under increased pressure to secure the release of the remaining hostages.

“[It’s] hard to answer,” Roman said in response to the Blade’s question about whether the Israeli government has done enough to secure the hostages’ release.

Roman spoke with the Blade after he and other hostages’ relatives met with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), U.S. Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and other lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Roman and his cousin also had a private meeting with U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

“They were so attentive, so reasonable, so supportive,” said Roman, referring to the meeting with Sanders and Warren.

No ceasefire until all hostages are released

Roman was in D.C. days before A Wider Bridge brought a group of LGBTQ activists from the U.S. to Israel.

The trip coincided with growing calls for a ceasefire in Gaza.

“The genocide in Gaza and violent attacks in Israel and Palestine must end,” said the National LGBTQ Task Force ahead of its annual Creating Change conference that took place last week in New Orleans.

Roman told the Blade he was afraid to walk in public while holding a poster with Gat’s picture on it because people “screamed at me, commented on it” when he was in New York.

“They don’t see me as a person,” said Roman. “I don’t think they see Carmel or Yarden as a person. They don’t see them as people. They see them as what Hamas tried to make them, a tool of war.”

“You have many people who are not on our side, who are justifying the fact that people have been murdered, that people have been raped, slaughtered, taken hostage,” he added.

Roman also said there cannot be a ceasefire until Hamas releases all of the hostages.

“There might be a ceasefire if all the hostages will be released,” he said. “The hostages are key.”

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