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Iraqi authorities should 'unequivocally condemn' emo attacks

  • Investigation needed, say three leading human rights groups
  • Two members of heavy metal band reportedly killed because of appearance

The Iraqi government should immediately investigate and bring to justice those responsible for a targeted campaign of intimidation and violence against young Iraqis seen as belonging to an “emo” subculture, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW), and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) said today.

The attacks have created an atmosphere of terror among those who see themselves as potential victims.

A 22-year-old gay man in Baghdad told the international rights groups that anonymous callers made death threats on his phone on 11 March. The callers described a friend of his whom they had kidnapped and brutally beaten days earlier, saying that was how they got his number. They told him that he would be next. He has since cut his hair and does not leave his house for fear of being targeted. He said:

“When the news started spreading about emos, the threats and violence against gays increased. They are grouping us all together, anyone who is different in any way, and we are very easy targets.”

The campaign’s victims appear to represent a cross-section of people seen locally as non-conformists. They include people suspected of homosexual conduct, but also people with distinctive hairstyles, clothes, or musical taste. In English, “emo” is short for “emotional,” referring to self-identified teens and young adults who listen to certain types of rock music, often dress in black, close-fitting clothes, and cut their hair in unconventional ways. People perceived to be gay, lesbian, transgender or effeminate are particularly vulnerable.  

In an official statement on 8 March, Iraq’s Interior Ministry dismissed reports by local activists and media of a campaign against those seen as emos, saying the reports were “fabricated” and “groundless,” and that it would take action against people who were trying “to highlight this issue and build it out of proportion.” However, an official ministry statement on 13 February had characterised emo culture as “Satanist”, casting doubt on the government’s willingness to protect vulnerable youth, the international rights groups said.

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said:

“At best the response of the Iraqi Interior Ministry is completely inadequate, at worst it condones the violence against emo youth. Iraqi authorities should unequivocally condemn the attacks, investigate any killings and protect anyone in danger.”

Human Rights Watch Middle East Deputy Director Joe Stork said:

“The government has contributed to an atmosphere of fear and panic fostered by acts of violence against emos. Instead of claiming that the accounts are fabricated, the Iraqi authorities need to set up a transparent and independent inquiry to address the crisis.”

Iraqi human rights activists have told the three human rights organisations that in early February signs and fliers appeared in the Baghdad neighbourhoods of Sadr City, al-Hababiya and Hay al-‘Amal threatening named people with “the wrath of god” unless they cropped their hair short, gave up wearing so-called “satanic clothing”, hid their tattoos and “maintained complete manhood.” Other names appeared on similar posters in different neighbourhoods. One such sign, posted on a wall in Sadr City, listed 33 names and was decorated with images of two handguns. It read:

“In the name of God the compassionate, the merciful, we warn every male and female in the strongest terms to stop their dirty deeds in four days before the wrath of God strikes them through the hands of mujahedin.”

Since February, the three international rights groups have received information from local human rights groups, community activists and media about the deaths of young people. Some local media reports have put the death toll as high as several dozen. The organisations have not been able to confirm that people have been killed as part of an organised campaign.

A 26-year-old man from Mosul told the rights groups that unknown assailants killed two members of his heavy metal band on 8 March because of their appearance.  He said:

“We don’t know who is behind this now, but for a long time, people have been accusing us of being Satanists. So this is not new, but now it has become murderous.”

While it is unclear who is behind the anti-emo campaign, Iraqi media reports have fuelled it by characterising what they call an “emerging emo phenomenon” as Satanists, vampires, immoral and un-Islamic. Some clerics and politicians have also contributed to the demonisation of young emos. The Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called them “crazy fools” and a “lesion on the Muslim community”, though he also maintained that they should be dealt with “within the law.”

Documents received by Amnesty, HRW and the IGLHRC indicate that in August 2011 Iraq’s Education Ministry circulated a memo recommending that schools curb the spread of emo culture, which it called “an infiltrated phenomenon in our society.” In its 13 February statement the Interior Ministry’s indicating that it was seeking approval from the Education Ministry for “an integrated plan that would let them [police] enter all the schools in the capital.” On 29 February the Interior Ministry released another statement announcing a campaign against emo culture in Baghdad, particularly in the Khadimiya neighborhood, where they identified one shop as selling “emo clothing and accessories.”

After widespread media coverage of the violence and intimidation against emos, the Interior Ministry toned down its language in its 8 March statement. It warned against “radical and extremist groups attempting to stand as protectors for morals and religious traditions from any conduct against people based on a fashion, dress or haircut.” The ministry denied that any emos had been killed and threatened “necessary legal actions against those who try to highlight this issue and build it out of proportion.”

Meanwhile, on 14 March security forces in Baghdad detained the film crew of Russia Today’s Arabic TV channel, Rusiya al-Yaum for three hours as they tried to film a segment related to the attacks on emos. Security forces confiscated their footage even though the channel had a permit to film in Baghdad. Meanwhile, a report by Al-Sharqiya TV on 7 March said that men in civilian clothes brutally beat two young Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights in public in al-Mansour district because of their “fashionable clothing.”

On 15 March the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, a non-profit organisation that provides legal assistance and safe passage to Iraqis facing severe persecution, told HRW that in the past week it had conducted interviews with 23 young Iraqis, most of whom had cut their hair short and were in hiding after receiving death threats and harassment because they were perceived to belong to the emo or LGBT communities. The interviewees also reported that ten others perceived to be in those communities had been killed since mid-February.

IGLHRC Director of Programs Jessica Stern said:

“The government needs to ensure the safety of all Iraqis, not amplify the threats against those already being targeted. The Iraqi Ministry of Interior’s inaction and denial of the ongoing campaign to punish people seen as non-conformists threatens everyone who is different, including those who defy traditional notions of gender and sexuality.”

The killings and intimidation have generated strong condemnation within Iraq. A statement by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a leading Shia spiritual leader, who referred to the targeted killings of emo youth in Iraq as a threat to the nation’s peace and order, was a positive development, the groups said. Ayatollah Sistani's representative in Baghdad, Shaikh Abd al-Rahim al-Rikabi, described the killings as “terrorist acts."

On 8 March several members of the Iraqi parliament demanded a police investigation into the killings and unequivocally condemned them. On 13 March the parliament speaker, Usama Najaifi, said the “phenomena of assassinating some young people - those who are described as Emo - by some groups in the name of reforming society, entrenches a culture of violence and terror … and is a violation of law and a crime.”

People perceived to be gay, lesbian, transgender and effeminate men told the rights groups that they feel particularly vulnerable. In 2009, Amnesty, HRW and the IGLHRC documented a pattern of torture and murder by Iraqi militias against men suspected of same-sex conduct or of not being "manly" enough. The Iraqi authorities did nothing to stop those killings and many members of the community have since gone underground.

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