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Rights group praises Muqtada al-Sadr's new stance on anti-gay violence

It's not toleration, but Human Rights Watch says Iraqi cleric's call 'not to attack' homosexuals is 'a welcome step'
Al-Sadr's Saraya al-Salam militia has been accused of widespread human rights abuses (AFP)

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has welcomed a statement by influential Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr urging an end to violence against gay and gender non-conforming people.

The Shia leader, who heads a militia and a political party and enjoys a wide following in Iraq, made his appeal to refrain from violence in a statement issued on 7 July. In it, he went as far as saying people should distance themselves from homosexuals but "not attack them".

While pointing out that Sadr remains intolerant of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, on Thursday HRW called the statement "an important step".

"He should ensure that those in the ranks of the militia under his command, the Peace Companies (Saraya al-Salam), obey the order and should hold accountable commanders who do not," it said.

"While Sadr is still a long way from fully embracing human rights for LGBT people, his statement shows that he understands the importance of stopping abuses against them," HRW deputy Middle East director Joe Stork said.

The New York-based rights group has documented past abuses by militias, including the Mahdi Army, Sadr's former military arm, against LGBT people.

HRW found that "a wide-reaching campaign of extrajudicial executions, kidnappings and torture" in early 2009 had started in Baghdad's Sadr City, a neighbourhood which is named after the cleric's father and where he enjoys massive support.

"Mahdi Army spokesmen promoted fear about the 'third sex' and the 'feminisation' of Iraqi men, as well as suggesting that militia action was the remedy," HRW said.

Same-sex relationships were decriminalised after Saddam was removed from power in 2003, but Iraqi law offers no constitutional protection for its LGBT+ citizens. Iraqueer, the only Iraqi organisation dedicated to promoting LGBT rights and opposing violence against homosexuals, has been tolerated by the government. The organisation operates various safe houses and gives advice to LGBT Iraqis fleeing persecution. 

Shia militias that claim to be fighting the Islamic State group (IS) under the banner of the Iraqi army have recently been accused of multiple murders by the International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission.

As early as 1995, Saddam commissioned a paramilitary group with the sole purpose of identifying, torturing and killing LGBT+ individuals as well as women accused of adultery. After Saddam was deposed, the gay community began to sporadically organise parties and meetings in gay friendly spaces, but militia attacks then drove the community further underground.