The Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, did not bat an eyelid when he asserted at New York's Columbia university that there were no homosexuals in Iran.
He was not joking either. He had been asked about the execution of gays in Iran. "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country," he said.
The statement drew howls and boos from his audience.
One human rights expert who watched the debate last September described the words as a sick joke, because homosexuality carries the death penalty in Iran.
According to Amnesty International, more than 200 people were executed last year in Iran, although the exact number of gays is difficult to determine because the accusations are often bound up with other charges. Proving a sexual act has happened is difficult because it requires four male "righteous witnesses" to confirm the transgression.
Lesbian sex is punishable by 100 lashes, with the death penalty being imposed after the fourth offence.
Two men were publicly hanged in the northern town of Gorgan for homosexual acts in November 2005. In July 2006 two youths were hanged for homosexuality in north-eastern Iran. In the most controversial case, in December a 20-year-old Kurdish Iranian, Makwan Mouladzadeh, was hanged for allegedly raping three boys when he was 13, despite a judicial review having been ordered and, according to Human Rights Watch, his accusers withdrawing their statements. Mr Mouladzadeh had also withdrawn his "forced" confession
Human rights organisations say Iran is flouting obligations which it has signed up to, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Iranian gay activists have gone underground. Unlike gay websites, their email network cannot be shut down because it does not have a home page.
And the Home Office's view...
Home Office guidance for its own immigration officers handling asylum cases notes that criminal convictions have highlighted the issue of homosexuality in the Iranian penal system.
It says: "Technically, gay male behaviour is sharply condemned by Islam, and the Islamic code of law (Sharia law) adopted by Iran. Sodomy is punishable by death if both parties are considered to be adults of sound mind and free will."
Specifically, it refers to the case of a double execution of two young men charged with sodomy.
Yet the guidance denies there is a systematic repression of gay men and lesbians. Instead immigration officers are told to treat each case on its merits. Where an individual claimant demonstrates that their homosexual acts have brought them to the attention of the authorities – to the extent that on return to Iran they will face a real risk of punishment which will be so harsh as to amount to persecution – he should be granted refugee status as a member of a particular social group, says the operational guidance.
The notes add that gay rights activists who have come to the attention of the authorities should be granted asylum.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies