A court in an underdeveloped southwestern province of Iran has sentenced four men to death by hanging for committing "sodomy," according to a recent report by the Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA).
The men, Javid Akbari, Saadat Arefi, Vahid Akbari, and Houshmand Akbari come from the remote town of Choram in Iran's southwestern Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad Province and could be hung within days, the HRANA report suggests.
The Christian Post reached out to Human Rights Watch to discuss the case and although the organization has not yet been able to independently verify the sentencing, Faraz Sanei, a Middle East and North Africa Division researcher at HRW, told CP that HRANA's claims are probable under the current climate in the country.
"It is very possible in fact that these individuals have been given the death sentence. The question is for what crime and what are the circumstances," said Sanei.
Iran punishes individuals for engaging in homosexual acts – not differentiating between consensual and non-consensual same-sex acts or rape. However, homosexuality itself is not outlawed anywhere in the Iranian penal code and it remains unclear what the exact crimes the four men have been sentenced for.
"There is absolutely no indication that the four men in question are gay or part of the LGBT community. This could, very well, be a case of rape and not consensual sexual relations between men. Conflating these issues can have very negative consequences both for the individuals currently charged with 'sodomy' and for members of the LGBT community in Iran," according to Sanei.
There are no official statistics with regards to how large the LGBT community is in Iran, but thousands of Iranians self-identify as homosexual, despite the Iranian leadership's denial of their presence and its continued stance that homosexuality is an imported agenda being propped up by Western powers.
"In Iran we don't have homosexuals like you do in your country. This does not exist in our country," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said during a controversial speech at Columbia University in 2007.
International human rights organizations, such as HRW or Amnesty International, are not allowed to operate in the country and trials for moral charges are not open to the public – creating an environment void of judicial transparency and adding additional challenges to interpreting the circumstances behind the recent sentencing, according to Sanei.
"It's not clear right off the bat whether this is a case of rape or if it's a case of consensual same-sex relations. We do not know, as of now, whether these four men have been convicted of rape or if they have been convicted of consensual same-sex relations," the human rights researcher said.
"Often times even the lawyers themselves are deprived of the type of information they need to actually defend their client."
Despite the lack of verifiable information, human rights activists around the world have been speaking out against the sentencing and expressing concern that the men were not given access to a fair trial.
"We do not feel they (the men) received a FAIR TRIAL and we feel this proposed action to kill your own brothers is not in agreement with the teachings of ISLAM, a religion that preaches PEACE, COMPASSION, and LOVE," activist and executive committee member of Gays Without Borders, Gary Virginia, wrote in an open letter.
"Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the plight of gay people in Iran knows exactly what this charge, and the Islamic Republic's willful failure to differentiate between rape and consensual same-gender sexual relations, really means," John S. Burke wrote in a public petition on GoPetition.com.
Activists have also argued that Iran has stepped up its crackdown on homosexuality in recent months.
"Although being gay is not a crime based on Iranian criminal law this is the most clear statement against same sex-acts in past months," an Iranian gay rights activist told HRANA of the death sentences.
Historically, Iranian officials and religious clerics have been open in their outward condemnation of homosexuality, but in an April speech, high-ranking religious cleric Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi-Amoli intensified his rhetoric against homosexuality.
"Even animals … dog and pigs don't engage in this disgusting act but they (Western politicians) pass laws in favor of them in their parliaments," the religious leader said.
Despite the claims, legal, logistical, and cultural challenges make it difficult for an organization like HRW to assess the current environment for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community in Iran.
"Generally speaking, there has been a more hostile environment in the past few months in particular. The issue of the LGBT community has gotten a lot of play in the Iranian press," Sanei told CP.
"The rhetoric in general has been kind of heightened over the last few months in particular, but we don't necessarily have any proof that they've actually gone out on security sweeps in areas to try to catch members of the LGBT community and target them specifically for their activities."
How this case will influence Iranian relations with the outside world remains to be seen, but the country with an already tarnished human rights record for its treatment of political dissidents, sexual minorities, and religious minorities, is likely to face intense international scrutiny if the four men are hung for engaging in consensual same-gender sexual relations.
"International law essentially says that the death penalty should only be reserved for what is considered a most serious crime," Sanei said.
"We at Human Rights Watch oppose the death penalty under all circumstances (but) generally speaking, sex-crimes especially if they're consensual in nature, do not constitute most serious crimes (under international law). There's issues to whether or not rape would constitute a most serious crime that would be subject to the death penalty -- and under international law would be okay. There is an issue on that, but certainly not with respect to consensual sex."