Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's seemingly ridiculous claim that "we don't have homosexuals, like in your country" masks the cruel reality that his government does far worse than ignore gays, human rights groups charge.
"There are criminal laws on the books in Iran that allows for people to be killed for being homosexual," said Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
Just how many gays may have been killed — some say the figure is more than 400 — is impossible to determine. Routine harassment and systematic torture of gays in Iran is quite common, charge human rights groups.
"The most likely sentence is some jail plus anywhere between 10 and a couple of hundred lashes," said Scott Long, who follows gay rights issues for Human Rights Watch. "No one who survives them is likely to forget them."
But Ahmadinejad's flip follow-up answer to the question posed to him Monday at Columbia University — "We do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who has told you that we have" — suggests he won't take the issue seriously.
Human rights groups have long railed against the Iranian government's persecution of gays, which Ettelbrick calls "a campaign by the government to draw attention to the risks of people expressing their sexuality." Some believe that repression has only worsened since Ahmadinejad became president.
"When I first heard his comments yesterday, I laughed," said Arsham Parsi, founder of the Toronto-based Iranian Queer Organization.
"But after I thought about it, I realized this is really a very strong statement. By denying we exist, he does not even acknowledge that we have human rights."
Iranian gays who try to operate in these circles do so at great peril. In one case widely covered by Western news agencies, Iran allegedly executed in July, 2005, an 18-year-old man and a minor for the "crime" of homosexuality.
The stories and a series of disturbing pictures of the executions were covered by the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA), and widely distributed on the Internet.
Iranian officials insisted the two were guilty of not just homosexuality, but the forcible rape of an underage boy. Gay rights supporters say those charges are often applied to homosexuals who engage in consensual relations.
Parsi said initial Iranian news reports said the two young men were executed because they were gay. But as reports and pictures of the case became more widely disseminated, Iranian officials only later included information about additional criminal charges.
According to Iranian law, consensual gay sex in any form is punishable by death. Violators are reportedly given a choice of four methods of execution: hanging, stoning, halving by sword — or being dropped from the highest perch.
Ironically, Parsi says the truth is that Iranian officials actually know quite a bit about homosexuals in Iran. Gay men in Iran are allowed medical dispensations from mandatory military service, for example, and the country's secret police constantly monitor gay activities through Internet chat rooms and other electronic methods.