Iraq: How A Housepainter And An Army Widow Led The Secret Fight To Save LGBT People From ISIS

ISTANBUL — The first time Majid and Ahlam saved a gay person’s life, they didn't even know what LGBT stood for. Word had reached them that three men were being held at home by members of their extended family, who were preparing to execute them for “shaming” the family…

We must create a historical memory so that history doesn’t forget what happens to LGBT people in conflict. What we want to do is to change the discourse of LGBT crimes in the world.
— Lisa Davis, legal aid for the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq

This is the story of how Majid and Ahlam secretly worked to help LGBT people escape ISIS at a time when the Islamist militants regularly bragged online — in grisly images and videos that made headlines around the world — about throwing gay men to their deaths. It’s also the story of how they are now trying to bring ISIS to justice.

Majid and Ahlam helped two gay men and two lesbian women escape execution orders during the three years ISIS controlled parts of northern Iraq. They recorded the stories of 87 people who were tortured or executed for homosexuality, working with a network of their own friends and family members to document ISIS violence.

From the beginning of the conflict, the feminist group Majid and Ahlam worked for, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), was preparing for a time when it might be possible to bring ISIS to justice.

The 87 LGBT cases are part of a much larger dossier of ISIS abuses that OWFI compiled, covering 4,383 victims and 1,804 ISIS members. With help from contacts inside the Iraqi military, Majid and Ahlam also got their hands on many of ISIS’s own records related to these cases in this dossier.

OWFI’s legal team has been trying to find a court that will prosecute these crimes since ISIS’s hold on the region was broken in 2017. But the lawyers know it’s extremely unlikely that Iraqi courts will prosecute ISIS for killing gays — Iraqi lawmakers, after all, had once made homosexuality a crime punishable by death. And no war crimes tribunal has ever prosecuted a case based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

OWFI wants ISIS leaders to be charged with crimes against humanity for persecuting LGBT people, which would be a revolutionary step in international law. OWFI knows it faces a long fight to make that happen, but last month it got a chance to start making its case. An investigative team that the United Nations Security Council sent to Iraq to help investigate human rights abuses formally asked OWFI for copies of the evidence it had collected. Read more via BuzzFeed News