Baghdad, Iraq – On his first trip here at just 17 years old, Hyder’s excitement to visit the bustling capital to meet friends quickly faded to a traumatising nightmare that would leave him depressed for years to come.
Hyder, who identifies as queer, was stopped at a checkpoint on the way downtown and taken into a closed caravan where the security officers proceeded to touch his genitalia backed by a chorus of laughter.
They taunted Hyder, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, saying if he went to jail he would never leave and would be sold to prisoners.
“It was one of the most horrible events that ever happened to me … It has killed something inside me,” Hyder, now 19, told Al Jazeera.
The experience Hyder described to Al Jazeera is but one example of why the LGBTQ community in Iraq lives in constant fear, as a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Iraqi LGBTQ rights organisation IraQueer highlights.
The 86-page report, extensively details cases of abductions, attempted murder, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence including gang rape, and online harassment against LGBTQ people by Iraqi police and armed groups.
In some cases, the abuses documented in the report were against children as young as 15.
Hyder told Al Jazeera the police had profiled him and stopped him because he had long hair. After searching him they found vitamin tablets he was using to recover from COVID, and accused him of drug possession.
‘Can’t you just be a man’
After wiping his face with a tissue to see if he was wearing makeup, the police took Hyder to a station and he was verbally abused by 14 officers who accused him of being a prostitute and threatened him with rape.
According to Hyder, the police asked demeaning questions such as; “How much did your boyfriend pay you yesterday for sex?” and “Can’t you just be a man?”
Hyder’s genitals were fondled by officers as he was made to undress for an anal examination – which one policeman referred to as an “honour examination” – to “determine if I was gay or not”.
The sexual violence Hyder suffered made him feel “soul-eating fear”, but after finally being retrieved by his family and driven back home to Najaf – a holy city for Shia Islam 160km (90 miles) south of Baghdad – he could not rest.
“When I came back home my family were even worse than the police … because I brought shame on the family,” Hyder said, adding his relatives know nothing of his sexual identity but were only concerned with him being arrested.
Holding him at gun point, Hyder’s father threatened to kill him.
“I’ve suffered from depression until now … and have a body image issue,” Hyder said.
Facing attacks for years
While abuses against the LGBTQ community in Iraq have long continued, HRW researcher Rasha Younes said the attacks have become multifaceted and the methods expanded.
Online platforms such as social media and same-sex dating applications now serve as avenues to target individuals and track them down offline.
“Also, a significant development in recent years is that families have become aware of the state sponsored anti-LGBT discourse and are perpetuating the same violence against their children based on their gender expression that they would usually face in the streets,” Younes told Al Jazeera.
Hasan, a 24-year-old an activist who co-founded Gala Iraq, a platform for queer Iraqis, described his life to Al Jazeera as being like a jail.
“I can’t express myself, I can’t talk to my family … My home and my family are like the police,” Hasan, whose name was also changed for safety reasons, said in voice messages.
“The Islamic militias here in Najaf threaten me … They told me [through my Instagram] account that if they find me they’ll kill me … Every time I go out I have a panic attack, and am thinking, ‘are they following me? They’re going to kill me,’” he continued, saying he only leaves the house about once a month.
‘Protectors of morals’
The HRW report outlines that armed groups, primarily within the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), which are under the prime minister’s authority, also act with impunity and inflict abuses on the LGBTQ community in Iraq.
In one testimony, a 31-year-old transgender woman was stopped on the side of the road in Baghdad before six men sliced her body with a razor blade, poured gasoline on her, then set her on fire.
A young gay man was also forced to watch his boyfriend tortured by an armed group before they shot him five times, according to the report.
The armed groups implicated in the most serious cases are Atabat Mobilization – affiliated with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and Iran-backed Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Badr organisation, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Raba Allah Group, and Saraya al-Salam.
The HRW report states the armed forces claim they “stand as protectors for morals and religious traditions”, and their main objective is to maintain “social order” and “police morality”.
As far back as 2009, armed groups began a campaign of extrajudicial executions, kidnappings and torture of men not conforming to gender norms.
In 2012, several groups who are now under the umbrella of the PMF – including Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, the Mahdi Army (now known as Saraya al-Salam), and Kata’ib al-Ghadab – launched a wave of attacks later labelled as “emo killings” as it targeted boys in a particular subculture perceived as being LGBTQ.
While politician and prominent leader Muqtada al-Sadr called for a ban on violence against those not conforming to gender norms in 2016, saying they have “psychological problems” and instead should be guided “using acceptable and rational means”, militias ignored his call.
“These armed groups are not necessarily organised, they operate in a disorganised fashion for an organised intent, which leads to consequences for LGBTQ people specifically,” Younes said.
“The responsibility lies with the Iraqi government … There needs to be real accountability in punishing the perpetrators proportionately and holding them accountable in a court of law for their actions.”
‘Walking to our death’
The Iraqi government did not reply to a request for comment by the time of publication. HRW also did not receive responses to any of its questions or recommendations before publishing the report.
Rather than creating avenues to punish perpetrators of violence, the Iraqi penal code allows for LGBTQ people to be arrested based on “policing morals and public indecency”.
As Hasan said, the community can never report violence or intimidation.
“When we see the police we change our direction, because they could arrest us for no reason … We can’t go to the police, it’s like walking to our death if we do that,” he said.
Both Hasan and Hyder said they see no other choice but to escape from the country.
“I’m too young to feel like I’m running out of time. I just hope that I can leave Iraq soon to be safe and happy finally,” Hyder said.