Philip Hensher: There is no logic to our treatment of Mehdi Kazemi

Thursday 13 March 2008 01:00 GMT

Let's make an effort and consider quite why the British authorities are resistant to Mehdi Kazemi's claim for political asylum. You can hear the argument. The world is full of difficult situations; the world is full of people whose lifestyle or convictions make existence hard in their native countries. A line, the officials will argue, has to be drawn somewhere.

If it becomes known that the UK has let one young Iranian homosexual stay in this country on the grounds that Iran hangs homosexuals, it will be said, then the country will be the target of all Iranian homosexuals seeking a more tolerant climate. And that will not be the end of it. Plenty of people live difficult lives. Women in large parts of the world endure oppression and limitation. In some cultures, they are at risk of enforced genital mutilation, for instance. In others, women known to have committed adultery will be targets for brutal judicial treatment. Should all such cases be permitted to enter the United Kingdom?

And, the officials will go on to argue, it is not just that the admission of one genuine case will open the floodgates for hundreds or thousands of other genuine cases. The knowledge that the UK will accept homosexuals under threat as asylum-seekers will, undoubtedly, encourage people who are not under any threat at all, and are not even homosexual, to claim that they are in order to take advantage of the UK's more liberal way of life and more successful economic prospects. How many people are there living in what we would consider oppressive political regimes who might be prepared to tell a lie about their sexuality if it would reliably gain them entry to the UK?

That is how the argument is going to run. But we're not talking about thousands of potential asylum seekers, or a situation that hasn't taken shape yet. We are talking, unfortunately, about one tragic and terrifying case, and about one 19-year-old who we are seriously proposing to send back to Iran, where he may very well be executed.

Mehdi Kazemi claimed asylum in 2005 after his lover was hanged in Tehran for homosexual acts. Before he was hanged, Mr Kazemi believes, his lover named him to the authorities. In any case, even if he did not, the Iranian authorities certainly know about him now. His appeal to the British authorities for asylum failed, and he fled to the Netherlands to seek asylum there. His claim failed once again, and as I write, he is expected to be returned to Britain. Subsequently, perhaps in the next 72 hours, he will be sent back to Iran to meet his fate.

Homosexuals in Iran are treated in a number of ways. A remarkable television documentary a few weeks ago detailed the burgeoning sex-change industry in Iran. Under the encouragement of the mullahs, no distinction is made between heterosexual transsexuals and what we would see, clearly, as homosexuals with no desire to change their sex. A plain homosexual who is willing to accede to a sex-change is not treated as a criminal, but regarded as a transsexual. His sex will be altered, at what cost in human misery, the television documentary heartbreakingly chronicled. A homosexual who carries out homosexual acts is regarded as a criminal. He will be hanged.

The logic of the British authorities defies description. It seems incredible that they seriously suppose Mr Kazemi might put himself in the awful category of homosexual before the Iranian law in the hope that some Western country would accept him as an asylum-seeker. Is their argument that Mr Kazemi would not, in fact, face any danger if returned to Iran? That seems completely unjustified. Do they disbelieve his story, and think him an opportunistic chancer? That is so unlikely that we would like to know the evidence on which they have based their conclusion. Or are they merely worried that Mr Kazemi's case, even if completely genuine, even if refusal might lead to his brutal execution, would incite a great flood of genuine and bogus homosexual asylum-seekers from every corner of the world which the country could not cope with? Is it entirely impossible that Mr Kazemi's case has been dealt with by officials who regard a 19-year-old homosexual, and the state of homosexuality itself, with frank distaste? It seems more than likely.

The trouble is that Mr Kazemi is not, by now, a case or a precedent. He is a human being in a situation that we can thank God few of us will ever face. If the Home Office decide to send him back to Iran, they can congratulate themselves on having maintained their arbitrary rule about who does or does not qualify for asylum. Few of us, however, will congratulate ourselves on living, we discover, in a country whose officials hardly seem to notice any more when they have blood on their hands.

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