Twenty-six-year-old Faraj Ali Shalwi was a dapper dresser. And while his tight-knit circle of friends in his Libyan hometown, Derna, admired his sense of style, his neighbors treated him with suspicion. They said that his clothes were “contemporary.” They also said they were “effeminate.”
Shalwi's sartorial choices were different from those of most men, but they were probably not dangerous. That changed in November when the local Islamic Youth Shura Council raised the black flag of the extremist group Islamic State, pledging allegiance to the caliphate. It installed a new local government, an Islamic police force and an Islamic court.
Islamic State-allied militias in eastern Libya have committed numerous atrocities, including summary executions, public floggings and beheadings. Unidentified assailants were responsible for at least 250 seemingly politically motivated assassinations in 2014. Because of the collapse of the judicial system in the region, no one has been prosecuted or punished for these killings.
It was in this city that he met Saad Fakhakhiri, 40, who ran a clothes shop in Derna's historic downtown. Soon the two became inseparable. Shalwi confided to a friend that he was in a relationship with Fakhakhiri and liked him. He was frustrated because it was risky to express his feelings publicly. Any sexual relations outside marriage as well as “lewd acts” are punishable with up to five years in prison under the Libyan Penal Code.
Through word of mouth, Shalwi's friends learned that the two men had been detained by the Islamic police in December on suspicion of homosexual conduct in a parked car. They were held in an unknown location for five months by extremist groups that pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
Shame born of social stigma prevented the families from holding funeral services for the three men. Nor would they receive condolences. It was as if nothing had happened.
These weren't the first executions in Derna of men accused of homosexuality. An activist in Derna told Human Rights Watch that 45-year-old Fathi Katish, who was relatively out as a gay man, was shot near his home in March 2014 by unidentified assailants.
And in July, 26-year-old Yousef Ghaithy, who had been jailed in 2008 under Moammar Kadafi's rule for three years on sodomy charges, was thrown by unidentified armed men from the edge of a mountain.
Islamic State has published at least eight online visual reports depicting executions of accused homosexuals in Iraq and Syria. On Tuesday, it posted photographs taken in Nineveh province, northern Iraq, showing a man accused of homosexuality being held by his feet over the edge of a high building and then dropped in front of a crowd of onlookers.
What is more chilling? Is it the casual chatter of the men departing the execution site, as if leaving a football match, or is it the white vans reversing into the square to collect three bodies?
This snapshot of Shalwi's life was provided by a journalist based in Benghazi with whom I am in communication. He spoke by phone to six men who knew Shalwi and were willing to talk.