Two Iranian LGBT activists sentenced to death

Sareh, who was sentenced to death along with another woman, Elham Choubdar, for “corruption on earth through the promotion of homosexuality.” (Youtube Screenshot)

Two Iranian lesbians have been sentenced to death by an Iranian court on charges of “corruption on earth through the promotion of homosexuality.” Iran’s state news agency, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported the sentencing of the women on September 5.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a U.S.-designated terrorist entity, accused the two women of “promoting homosexuality, gambling, fraud, and promoting illicit sexual relations and publishing them on the Internet.” According to the Tasnim News Agency, affiliated with the security forces, the women were first detained on charges of “forming a gang for trafficking girls and supporting homosexuality.” 

The verdict was issued by the Revolutionary Court of the city of Orumiyeh (Urmia) in West Azarbaijan province against Zahra Sedighi-Hamedani, 31, known as Sareh, and Elham Choubdar, 24. A third woman, Soheila Ashrafi, 52, is another defendant in the case, but she is still awaiting sentencing.

Amnesty International reported Sareh’s initial detention in January 2022, describing her as “a gender nonconforming person and LGBTI activist” who had been arrested “due to her real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as her social media posts and statements in defense of LGBTI rights.” There were no details about Elham Choubdar other than that she is an LGBTI activist from Urmia.

Iran International news service reports that in July, the IRGC added new charges against Sareh. She was then charged with “trafficking young Iranian women” to Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. 

Sareh was first arrested in October 2021 in Erbil, Iraq. According to Amnesty International, she was later arrested while trying to cross the border to seek asylum in Turkey. Sareh said she was held in solitary confinement for 53 days and tortured by the IRGC, including with beatings, electric shocks, and prolonged solitary confinement. 

She said that she was “forcibly disappeared,” during which time the IRGC subjected her to “intense interrogations accompanied by verbal abuse,” harassed about her sexual orientation and her appearance, and that the IRGC “threatened to execute or otherwise harm her and take away the custody of her two young children.” Following her release from detention, she was in constant fear of being rearrested. 

Amnesty reports that on November 6, 2021, the Intelligence Organization of the IRGC announced in a statement widely reported by state media outlets that they caught “through a complex, multilayered and extraterritorial intelligence operation, the leader of a network involved in smuggling Iranian girls and women to neighboring countries for the purpose of corruption and directing and supporting homosexual groups that work under the protection of [foreign] intelligence agencies.” 

Amnesty said it “believes that the allegations of smuggling are spurious and baseless and stem from Zahra Sedighi-Hamadani’s association with other Iranian LGBTI asylum seekers.” 

Amnesty asserted that Sareh “simply is under arrest arbitrarily against international standards and is kept in the central prison of Urmia because of her sexual orientation, real or assumed gender identity, and her posts and statements on social media in defense of the rights of homosexuals, bisexuals, transgender, and intersex people.”

On January 16, Sareh was accused of multiple charges of “spreading corruption on earth,” including through “promoting homosexuality,” “communication with anti-Islamic Republic media channels” and “promoting Christianity.”

Amnesty International appealed for her release to Iran’s Chief Justice Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei on January 25. 

On September 6, the advocacy group Iran Human Rights called for the “revocation of Zahra Sadighi and Elham Choobdar’s death sentences and calls on the international community for an immediate and strong reaction to their sentences and the wave of executions in Iran.”

Iran Human Rights Director, Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, said: “Zahra Sadighi and Elham Choobdar were sentenced to death without due process and in unfair legal proceedings based on forced confessions. Their convictions have no legal validity. Islamic Republic authorities have also cited promoting homosexuality as one of the reasons for their arrests. Their lives can be saved by immediate and strong reactions by the international community and civil society.”

Sareh’s initial arrest in Iraq was after she appeared in a May 2021 BBC documentary about gay rights in Iraqi Kurdistan and abuses LGBT people were subjected to in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region, where Sareh was living at the time.

Both Iraqi and Iranian law criminalize LGBT people. Sexual activity between males and sexual activity between females are illegal and the penalty includes the death penalty. 

In Iran, same-sex sexual activity is prohibited under the Penal Code 2013, which criminalizes acts of “livat,” “tafkhiz,” “musaheqeh,” and other intimate acts. These provisions carry a maximum penalty of death. Both men and women are criminalized under this law. These provisions have their origins in Islamic law, with Iran adopting a criminal code based upon Sharia principles. 

Defined in Article 238, mosahegheh (lesbian sex) is not directly punishable by the death penalty but as it is a hadd crime (fixed punishments for which Sharia or Islamic law has fixed the measure, degree and method), according to Article 136 of the IPC on “Repeat Offences,” it is punishable by death on the fourth occasion if “offenders” are sentenced and receive the lashing punishments (100 for mosahegheh) on the first three occasions. 

Article 302(a) of the law states that anyone charged with committing a crime against an individual who has committed a hadd crime punishable by death is considered mahdoor-ol-dam (one whose blood can be shed with immunity) and the perpetrators of the murder will not be sentenced to qisas (retribution-in-kind) or have to pay diya (blood money). Which means anyone can kill an accused lesbian or gay man and not face any legal or even civil court actions.

Human Rights Watch reports that LGBTQ people in Iran are subjected to harassment, violence and overt and covert legal actions. Penalties meted out to lesbian and gay Iranians range from public flogging to the death penalty. 

Amnesty said September 6 that the agency was “outraged” by the sentences for the two women. Amnesty’s statement called for Iranian authorities to “quash the convictions and death sentences” and release Sareh and Chobdar. 

The women’s sentences are being appealed in Iran’s Supreme Court, but there are no details on whether they have legal representation.

Before she tried to flee Iran and seek asylum in Turkey, Sareh made a video, referenced in Amnesty’s January letter, in which she said, “Any time I can be arrested. My life is in danger. I try to get out of Iran, I don’t know if I can make it or not.”

She continued, “I want you to know how much pressure we LGBT people endure. We risk our lives for our emotions, but we will find our true selves… I hope the day will come when we can all live in freedom in our country.”

Sareh added, “I am journeying toward freedom now… If I make it, I will continue to look after LGBT people. I will be standing behind them and raising my voice. If I don’t make it, I will have given my life for this cause.”

Human rights advocates have called on the Biden administration to sanction Iran over the arrest and sentencing of the women.