In February news circulated that a 23-year-old transgender woman, Doski Azad, had been killed by her brother in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. I read the news, having just concluded my research on armed groups’ killings, abductions, torture, and sexual violence against LGBT people in Iraq, and thought, how can LGBT people get justice and accountability when they can be killed and abused with impunity, even in their own homes?
Over the past six months, I interviewed 54 LGBT Iraqis who have survived harrowing violence at the hands of Iraqi armed groups and the police. Some of them also had intimate knowledge of other LGBT Iraqis who had been killed or disappeared by armed groups due to their gender presentation or perceived sexual orientation.
Our new report documents 8 abductions, 8 attempted murders, 4 extrajudicial killings, 27 instances of sexual violence, 45 threats to rape and kill, and 42 cases of online targeting by armed units within the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), groups nominally under the prime minister’s control since 2016, against LGBT people in Iraq. In eight cases, abuses by armed groups and police were against children as young as 15. In thirty-nine cases, the victims were able to identify the armed group behind the attack against them.
The numbers are most likely much higher. The attackers are known. Yet, as with so many killings and disappearances in Iraq, the perpetrators have not been held accountable.
Many of the people I interviewed were young enough to have just graduated from high school, yet the fear and isolation they described stretched as far as they could remember. Most had never spoken to anyone about what had happened to them. I found myself on several occasions setting aside my interview questions and just talking to them. I listened to a 27-year-old gay man describe how his boyfriend was tortured in front of him. “Then they shot him five times,” he said.
The story of one 21-year-old gay man stayed with me. He survived an attempt to kill him in November 2019, while three masked men stabbed the friend who was with him to death. He told me, gasping for breath, “They kept screaming: ‘Faggot! Faggot! You are faggot scum and deserve to die.’ One of them stabbed me in the shoulder, and I still don’t know how, but I ran for my life.”
His own father broke both his knees while beating him with a baton after he found him chatting with a man online. He said his father forces him to work at a family-owned laundromat for 16 hours per day in an underground room he called “a dungeon.” His father gives him leftovers from others’ plates and had previously thrown food in the garbage and told him to find it there.
Or the 31-year-old Iraqi transgender woman who was on her way home from work when six men in a Hummer with tinted windows stopped her next to a garbage dump in Baghdad. “They pulled out a razor blade and a screwdriver and poked and cut me all over, especially my ass, crotch, and thighs,” she said. “They sliced me up and poured around five liters of gasoline all over my body and face and set me alight….”
Her neighbors rescued her. Today, scars from her burns stretch from her neck to her feet. “They wanted me dead,” she said. “They have constrained my body, and I cannot love or be loved….I even contemplated suicide.”
Another transgender woman who had been kidnapped, tortured, and gang-raped in June 2020 by a PMF group, told me that after her abduction she stopped eating, failed her university exams, and attempted suicide. “I feel like the walking dead,” she said.
Where does justice begin for these individuals? No Iraqi laws protect LGBT Iraqis from violence. In fact, some provisions of Iraq’s Penal Code, like articles 41(1) and 128, empower attackers against them under the pretext of “honor,” knowing that the attackers can and most likely will get away with it. All of the people I interviewed said they would not report violence against them to the authorities because they are terrified that they would be targeted again, dismissed by the police, or detained.
The Iraqi government is responsible for ending the bloodshed and impunity, and it should start by investigating all reports of violence by armed groups or others against all victims including LGBT people and publicly condemning all such violence. The justice system should prosecute and appropriately punish those found responsible.
The government should take all measures to end torture, disappearances, summary killings, and other abuses based on sexual orientation and gender expression and identity, and compensate the families of all victims of unlawful killings and survivors of serious abuse. Justice only begins there.