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Middle East countries branded 'hypocritical' for condemning Orlando shooting

Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE have condemned the 'homophobic' Orlando killing despite repressive laws against homosexuality
Indian students light candles near a Rangoli, an Indian form of art created on the ground, to pay tribute to the victims of the Orlando killing, in Mumbai (AFP)

Human Rights Watch has labelled as “hypocritical” the condemnations of the Orlando killings by a number of Middle East countries which currently have laws criminalising or even prescribing the death penalty for homosexuality.

Following the mass shooting in a gay club in Orlando, Florida on Sunday - the worst mass shooting in US history - Iran, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and others came out to condemn the atrocity.

“Based on its principled policy of condemning terrorism and its firm resolve for serious and all-out confrontation of this discouraging phenomenon, the Islamic Republic of Iran condemns the recent terrorist attack in the US city of Orlando,” Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Jaberi Ansari said on Monday, according to the Iran Front Page website.

Iran's arch rival across the Gulf also offered sympathy for the attack, which began at about 2am local time on Sunday in the popular Pulse nightclub and led to 50 people being killed and 53 being wounded.

"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia condemns in the strongest terms the attack on innocent people in Orlando, Florida, and sends its deepest condolences to the families and friends of the victims and to the people of the United States,” said Saudi Ambassador to the US Abdullah al-Saud in a statement on Sunday.

UAE ambassador to Washington Yousef al-Otaiba also released a statement condemning the killings, adding that countries “must all work together to promote tolerance and peace” while the Qatari ministry of foreign affairs offered its condolences to the victims and expressed the “need for concerted international efforts to face criminal acts that target civilians everywhere in the world”.

However, human rights groups have noted that while these countries have condemned an attack which has been roundly described as homophobic in intent, they maintain anti-LGBT legislation and have actively opposed international efforts to fight homophobia.

“One can definitely say that this is hypocritical,” said Neela Ghoshal, researcher in the LGBT rights division at Human Rights Watch speaking to Middle East Eye. “These are hardly countries that can position themselves as outspoken defenders of LGBT rights or crusaders in the fight to end violence on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Most of these countries have voted against or blocked initiatives at the UN that are aimed at addressing violence on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity,” she added.

With the exception of Turkey and Israel - the former abstaining and the latter supporting - every country in the Middle East and North Africa opposed the UN Human Rights Council’s 2011 declaration of rights of LGBT people.

The death penalty is available for LGBT people in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Mauritania and Iran, although - with the exception of Iran - it is rarely enforced.

Execution of LGBT people has been commonplace in Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 - one of the most recent cases involved three men killed for "acts against the sharia law and bad deeds" in 2011.

In March, the Okaz newspaper in Saudi Arabia reported that prosecutors in the kingdom were pushing for the death penalty to be applied in dozens of cases involving men convicted of sodomy.

Among the countries and territories in the Middle East that do not legally prescribe homosexual acts are Turkey, Israel, Egypt, the West Bank, Jordan and Iraq.

Nevertheless Sunni and Shia militias, as well as the Islamic State, have often persecuted LGBT people in Iraq - although the English-language Twitter account of the Popular Mobilisation Units tweeted in “solidarity” with the Orlando victims:

The government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt, despite not criminalising homosexuality, has been responsible for a massive crackdown against LGBT people since it took power in 2013.

In April, a court sentenced 11 allegedly gay men to up to 12 years in jail under charges of "debauchery and incitement to debauchery".

On Sunday, Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid offered his condolences for the Orlando victims and said that Egypt and America stood "united in this moment of grief".

Ghoshal said that while she welcomed the statements of support from these governments, they should also use it as an opportunity for “self-examination”.

“I think it needs to be a wake up call that their laws and these kinds of massacres are part of the same problem," she said.

“My challenge to these government would be to say: thank you, as a member of the Queer community we appreciate that you’ve expressed sympathy for these victims - are you ready to allow freedom for sexual and gender minorities in your own country?"

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