While Syria was never a haven for gay people, the Syrian war is hitting the country’s LGBT community especially hard, reports one leading human rights group.
Same-sex sexual activity has long been illegal under Article 520 of Syria’s 1949 penal code. Break this law and you may face up to three years in prison. However, it is unclear how often people have actually been charged for so-called homosexual conduct. Needless to say, though, lesbian, gay and bisexual people have no legal protections and there is no official right to change gender, though it is thought that in some cases permission for amending a person’s gender identity on official records has been granted.
Shortly before the Syrian Uprising of 2011, however, there were reports of a government crackdown which saw Syrian authorities reportedly raiding suspects’ homes and charging them with a variety of offenses, including under Article 520. This was labelled a glimpse into what life for LGBTs was really like in Syria, and the raids carried a double threat. Even if a person escaped a jail penalty, the stigma of being labeled a homosexual would likely have led to marginalization and the potential danger of being the subject of an honor killing as families, ashamed of their LGBT children, would have them killed. Due to the fact that Syria hasn’t tracked LGBTs as an at risk population, there is no official record of how prevalent this practice was, but it is thought that LGBTs were particularly vulnerable.
All this quickly became mere background noise, though, when the Syrian Uprising took place and the resultant civil war began decimating the country, not least of which when the atrocity of chemical weapons use unfolded. Those voices were even harder to hear when, after that, the world’s press slowly turned their collective heads away from Syria and in search of new atrocities, revisiting only when there was something particularly horrendous to report.
Caught between the rebels who wish to oust the regime and Syria’s presiding Bashar Assad, who has clung on to power despite international calls to step down and is again running in the June elections, Human Rights Watch says that it has found evidence that the situation for gay people in Syria is particularly dire.
The human rights group recently interviewed a number of gay men who had taken refuge in Lebanon. They interviewed men because openly lesbian women are much harder to find due to the existing institutionalized restrictions on female freedom of expression. What HRW discovered was a population of gay men living in fear because the war, the HRW says, has increased entrapment, violence and discrimination against LGBT people.
For instance, the prisons are now so full that if people are arrested under suspicion of homosexuality, they may face being put in a room with 400 other people while they await being tortured. Human Rights Watch describes one couple as saying they were beaten by officials, and for 10 nights were forced to have sex in front of their Syrian army interrogators. Another man reported being abducted, beaten and then raped by army members.
When it is not the army that is making the LGBT population its entertainment, it seems they are also being hounded by Islamists. HRW reports that one man was blindfolded and handcuffed to a ceiling by men who claimed they were with al-Qaeda. They then tried to scare the man into revealing the names of gay friends. This is not an isolated incident, either, with HRW documenting several other instances of this kind of treatment.
What’s more, through its interviews, Human Rights Watch found evidence that gay people appear to be increasingly ostracized by their families, and even being made the targets of violence and death threats, including one 30-year-old man whose brother had joined an armed opposition group and then killed the man’s partner before coming after the man in question.
To add to this misery, things didn’t necessarily get better in Lebanon. In at least two cases, gay men who had fled Syria for what they thought would be the safety of Lebanon’s borders reported having been subject to anal exams, despite the practice having no medical worth and, moreover, contravening several human rights standards. Lebanon has frequently been warned about this practice and yet it seems it continues to ignore international law.
Human Rights Watch is calling on aid programs and wider officials to ensure that gay Syrians are being provided the relief and help they need so that they can escape these mounting atrocities. As the Syrian government continues to use barrel bombs in Aleppo, despite UN protestations, attention to this matter is even more necessary.
It may seem strange, too, to highlight just one group in a country where millions of civilians are suffering. However, highlighting how homosexuals are being targeted by both sides, and how women might actually be suffering in silence because they are effectively gagged by other laws of the state; none of this is meant to diminish the suffering of any other group but rather to drive home how anti-LGBT sentiment can be especially deadly in the violence and chaos of war.
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