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The arrest of more than 30 men attending a party in a private home in the city of Esfahan signals renewed efforts by Iranian authorities to enforce “morality” codes, and highlights the fragility of basic rights in a country where police powers routinely undermine privacy, Human Rights Watch said today.

It urged Iranian authorities to release the men reportedly arrested in late February, and to drop charges against people accused of consensual homosexual conduct, drinking alcohol, and other related “morals” offenses.

“When police routinely break down doors to enforce a brand of morality, it means a line has been crossed to invade people’s privacy at any time,” said Joe Stork, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Iran’s repressive system of controlling people’s dress, behavior, and personal lives violates fundamental rights.”

Sources inside Iran report to Human Rights Watch that on February 28-29, police in Esfahan raided a private home and arrested 30 or more men attending a party. They have been jailed for almost four weeks without access to lawyers and without charge. Police reportedly referred them to a forensic medical examiner to look for “evidence” that they have engaged in homosexual conduct.

In May 2007, during a nationwide crackdown to enforce dress codes and conduct, police raided another private party in an apartment building in Esfahan. They arrested 87 persons, including four women and at least eight people whom they accused of wearing the clothing of the opposite sex. Victims told Human Rights Watch that police stripped many of them to the waist in the street, and beat them until their backs or faces were bloody. Several reportedly had bones broken.

Of those arrested, 24 men were tried for “facilitating immorality and sexual misconduct,” as well as possessing and drinking alcohol. In June 2007, an Esfahan court found all of them guilty of various combinations of these charges. Most were sentenced to up to 80 lashes and to fines of 10 million to 50 million riyals (US$1,000-5,000). The verdicts are under appeal and have not yet been enforced.

Sources in Iran have told Human Rights Watch that since the May 2007 arrests, police have intensified surveillance, harassment, and abuse against people connected to the 87 arrested men, or otherwise suspected of homosexual conduct. Several described being detained by police and interrogated to reveal contacts.

According to one man’s account, police “poured water over me. … They threatened me, they said ‘cooperate with us.’ … They are after everyone, they said, ‘You are completing your gang, you are creating new members, where do you gather?’” They told me, ‘Go out and meet people.’ In essence, I should spy for them.”

Human Rights Watch learned that in December 2007 at another private gathering in Esfahan, police arrested 16 more people, subjecting them to forensic examinations. Authorities released them after four days in detention.

Other reports indicate that in March 2008, Esfahan police entrapped several men over the internet by answering personal advertisements, and interrogated them to reveal the names of friends and contacts. Police found erotic pictures of men on another man’s mobile phone after arresting him, and a court reportedly sentenced him to three years of imprisonment.

Iranian law provides punishments up to death for penetrative same-sex sexual activity between men on the first conviction, and punishes non-penetrative activity with up to 100 lashes. Homosexual conduct between women is punishable with death on the fourth conviction. Iran’s Penal Code requires four reiterated confessions, or the testimony of four “righteous men” as eyewitnesses, to prove lavat, or sodomy. However, judges are permitted to accept circumstantial evidence or inference. At the May 2007 raid in Esfahan, police reportedly brought four civilian witnesses to prove that “immorality” was taking place.

The last documented death sentences for consensual homosexual conduct in Iran were handed down in March 2005. It is not known whether they were carried out. In extensive interviews with men and women inside and outside Iran, Human Rights Watch has documented widespread patterns of arbitrary arrest and torture based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Western sources have suggested that charges of consensual homosexual conduct are converted to charges of rape in the Iranian judicial system, but Human Rights Watch has found no evidence of this.

“In Iran, for some people, the spy at the bedroom window or the knock at the door can mean the threat of a death sentence,” said Stork. “Privacy, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and freedom from torture are human rights. Police and judges must respect them.”

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