Heather Barr is an associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch.
About two weeks after the Taliban took over Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, last summer, a young man went missing. After several days, his parents went to his friend’s house to ask if the friend had seen him. The missing man’s parents weren’t aware, but the two men, who had met at university, had been a couple for about a year. But the boyfriend hadn’t heard from him either.
The next day the missing man’s family found his body. They returned to the boyfriend’s house and blamed him – saying they had heard rumours that he was gay and feared their son might have been killed by Taliban members or supporters because of this relationship.
The boyfriend is one of 60 LGBTQ Afghans that Human Rights Watch and OutRight Action International interviewed for a new report documenting the rise in abuse that LGBTQ people are facing in the country following the Taliban’s return to power.
When the Taliban were last in control, from 1996 to 2001, they ruled brutally – so people had every reason to fear the Taliban’s return. And it has already had a devastating effect on human rights: The Taliban have engaged in extrajudicial killings and land grabbing, crushed media freedom, and rolled back virtually every aspect of the rights of women and girls.
But LGBTQ people have had more reason than most to fear the Taliban. A Taliban spokesperson told Reuters in October that being LGBTQ or engaging in LGBTQ relationships contradicts their interpretation of Islam. A Taliban judge in a region under their control told the German tabloid Bild shortly before the fall of Kabul, “For homosexuals, there can only be two punishments: either stoning, or he must stand behind a wall that will fall down on him.” A Ministry of Vice and Virtue manual produced by their shadow government in 2020 states that religious leaders shall prohibit same-sex relations and that “strong allegations” of homosexuality shall be referred to the ministry’s district manager for adjudication and punishment.
Afghanistan was already a dangerous place for LGBTQ people well before the Taliban recaptured Kabul. In 2018, the government of President Ashraf Ghani passed a law that explicitly criminalized same-sex sexual relations, and the previous penal code included vague language widely interpreted as making same-sex relations a criminal offence. LGBTQ people interviewed had experienced many abuses because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, including sexual violence, child and forced marriage, physical violence from their families and others, expulsion from schools, blackmail, and being outed. Many were forced to conceal key aspects of their identity from society and from family, friends and colleagues.
But since the takeover, the situation has dramatically worsened. Many of those interviewed reported being attacked, sexually assaulted or directly threatened by Taliban members. Others reported abuse from family members, neighbours and romantic partners who now support the Taliban or believed they had to act against LGBTQ people close to them to ensure their own safety. Some fled their homes as Taliban members or supporters pursued them. Others watched lives they had carefully built over the years disappear overnight and found themselves at risk of being targeted at any time because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In late August, the world watched scenes of panic and devastation as people thronged at Kabul’s airport, trying desperately to reach evacuation flights. For every person who made it to safety, many more were left behind. And the doors have largely slammed shut on those still desperate to leave, especially vulnerable groups such as LGBTQ Afghans.
Indeed, most of the people we interviewed believed their only path to safety was to relocate to a country with greater protections for the rights of LGBTQ people. But most were still stuck – either in Afghanistan or in neighbouring countries where they cannot resettle and where same-sex conduct is also criminalized. Very few are known to have reached a safe country. Only the United Kingdom has publicly announced that it has resettled a small number of LGBTQ Afghans.
Countries receiving asylum-seeking Afghans should recognize that LGBTQ Afghans face a special risk of persecution in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries and expedite their applications for evacuation and resettlement. But it will never be feasible for all LGBTQ people in Afghanistan to flee and be resettled in a country where their rights are respected. All countries, including those that sent troops to Afghanistan over the past 20 years, have a responsibility to press the Taliban to end their abuses against LGBTQ people and uphold their rights.
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