Gay couple 'threatened by troops' over civil ceremony

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The Independent Online

A gay couple due to marry in one of Britain's first civil partnership ceremonies have received death threats claiming to be from British soldiers in Iraq.

Police are investigating the claim after a letter was sent to Gino Meriano days before the law changed to allow same-sex partners similar legal rights to married couples.

The message was written on official British Army notepaper and claimed to have been sent by members of a battalion currently serving in Iraq.

It threatened to "exterminate" Mr Meriano and his partner of seven years, Mike Ullett, if they went ahead with plans to take part in one of the first civil partnership ceremonies to be held tomorrow.

Mr Meriano, 42, from Weybridge, Surrey, said: "Whatever the intention of these people was, it worked. This has scared the hell out of me. They made it very clear what they wanted to do to me. It's chilling to think it could be from people in the Army."

The letter was addressed to Mr Meriano and sent to his Surrey-based company, the same-sex marriage organisers Pink Weddings.

Surrey Police are testing the letter for fingerprints. The postmark suggests it was posted in this country although a return address in Basra, Iraq, was written on the back of the envelope.

Since founding the business three years ago, Mr Meriano has been a prominent campaigner for gay people's right to have their relationships legally recognised. Earlier this year he and his partner were chosen to be among the first in England to take advantage of the new Civil Partnership Act, which extends to gay partners similar legal rights to married couples.

Around 30,000 same-sex "marriages" are expected to take place following the change in the UK law.

Mr Meriano said there was been a significant increase in the amount of hate mail he had received in recent months. A series of malicious calls have also been made to his home.

He said: "In my job I get quite a bit of negative mail and to some extent you get used to it.

"We get several letters over the course of the week, often from religious groups telling us how to go straight. Some warn us to reform our ways or we'll be chucked into a lake of fire. Others say we're a disgusting breed who should be killed. That kind of thing.

"Most of the time we don't do anything about it. I just think, here we go again, although after a while it does start to have an effect.

"I get paranoid and if I'm at home and the doorbell goes I get a bit jumpy. I suppose there's only so much you can take.

"But although I try not to let it faze me, this letter hit a nerve. It wasn't so much what it said, it was more the fact we will probably never know if it came from the army or an individual.

"It could just be some bloke who has got his hands on army notepaper but there was no way I was going to take that chance. I felt I had to call in the police."

A spokesman for Surrey police said: "We are investigating a report of a letter of a homophobic nature which has been received by a Weybridge businessman and inquiries are being made."

Security will be tight at the register office in Brighton, East Sussex, where a total of 198 ceremonies are due to take place before the end of the year.

A spokeswoman said: "It's a public building so we have our own security anyway but there will be more than usual on the day because this is such a big event."

Mr Meriano is determined not to let the threats spoil his day. "It's difficult not to think about it and although I know the register office will have security on the day I'm a bit fearful about walking out of there now if I'm honest," he said.

"For the register office to call me and say they're a little concerned, even though they're classing it as a low-level risk, brings it home."

He added: "I think we are almost expecting to get a religious person standing outside shouting and screaming and if that's all it is it'll be fine. I believe in freedom of speech. I just hope that's as far as it goes."