The case attracted the attention of the international media because of deeply disturbing photographs of the two as they were taken to be hanged. Many human rights activists found them a powerful, emotional indictment of the death penalty. The British group Outrage! initially alleged that the boys had been executed for engaging in consensual homosexual sex. However, some human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, have urged observers to refrain from casting the incident as a "gay" issue, and cast doubt on the claim that Marhoni and Asgari were hanged as a result of consensual acts. They have emphasized instead that the executions are a violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Iran is a signatory to both), which prohibit the execution of minors. Human Rights Watch has stated "There is no evidence that this was a consensual act," and observed that "The bulk of evidence suggests that the youth were tried on allegations of raping a 13-year-old, with the suggestion that they were tried for consensual homosexual conduct seemingly based almost entirely on mistranslations and on cursory news reporting magnified by the Western press." Human Rights Watch also stated that it was "deeply disturbed by the apparent indifference of many people to the alleged rape of a 13-year old." The two were believed to have been juveniles at the time of the offense, and one is believed to have been a juvenile at the time of his execution. Iran frequently executes people for offenses committed as children, a practice condemned by international human rights treaties.
The facts of the case are still subject to heated debate. The British activist, Peter Tatchell, known for his militant statements opposing Iran, has accused activists who have suggested the two were charged with rape of being "Western left-wing and Islamist apologists" of the "Iranian regime." Some of the reports that were first used to discredit the rape charges originated with an Iranian dissident group accused of serious human-rights violations, one that is controversially classified as a terrorist organization by the United States and Iran (the National Council of Resistance of Iran).
On July 19, 2005, the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA) posted an article in Persian describing the execution of the two youths. Its headline stated that they had been executed for "lavat beh onf," which means "sodomy/homosexual sex by force" and is a legal term used for rape of men by men. Earlier that day--on the morning of the executions--Quds, the local daily newspaper in Mashhad, had published a report on the executions. It gave a detailed account of how the two had allegedly raped a 13-year-old boy, and included statements by the father of the rape victim.
The ISNA article became the center of the dispute. The gay-rights group, OutRage!, led by Peter Tatchell, published its own free translation of the article on July 21. Either deliberately or through a mistranslation, it ignored the phrase "lavat beh onf" and used the story to claim that the two youths had been executed for consensual sex with one another.
Two news sources heavily involved in Iranian exile politics had meanwhile contributed to the spread of the story in English. On July 20, 2005, an Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance, the political wing of the People's Mojahedin (also known as the Mojahedin Khalq Organization or MKO), released a press release about the executions. It stated that: "The victims were charged with disrupting public order among other things. It did not mention the charges of rape. Iran Focus, a news website that is widely regarded as an affiliate of the People's Mojahedin, also published an article about the hangings, mentioning no charges at all. In a report, Human Rights Watch has accused the People's Mojahedin of grave human rights violations against its members and others, and some other Iranian exile groups accuse it of distorting facts to serve its political agenda.
"According to reports, they were convicted of sexual assault on a 13-year-old boy and had been detained 14 months ago. Prior to their execution, the two were also given 228 lashes each for drinking, disturbing the peace and theft.
On July 27, 2007, after researching reports on the hangings, Human Rights Watch released letters to Iran's President and the head of the judiciary. In writing to the Iranian leadership, Human Rights Watch condemned the use of the death penalty in Iran. It stated that the two "were put to death on July 19 after they were found guilty of sexually assaulting a thirteen-year-old boy some fourteen months earlier," but did not address whether those charges were accurate. Its public statement noted:
“Death is an inhumane punishment, particularly for someone under eighteen at the time of his crimes,” said Hadi Ghaemi, Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch. “All but a handful of countries forbid such executions. Iran should as well.In Tehran, Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi decried the imposition of the death penalty on minors but did not comment on the nature of the charges in this case.
The first reports in the Iranian media, including the highly respected ISNA, had all identified the hangings as the result of a rape conviction. However, these reports only came to light after later English-language accounts had suggested the two might have been killed for being gay. This made it appear plausible to some that the rape charges might have been simply a "cover story" put out later by the Iranian government--even though the story of rape had actually been the first one told. Several bloggers promoted the story heavily and gave wide coverage to the horrifying pictures of the hanging. U.S. blogger Doug Ireland referred to the charges of rape as "the Iranian government's story."
The hangings quickly became a political issue in disputes over U.S. and European policy toward Iran. The conservative U.S. commentator Andrew Sullivan posted the photographs in an entry on his blog called "Islamists versus Gays." Seeing the hangings as a reason gay people should support U.S. military action, he quoted a gay U.S. soldier who wrote him that:
"Your post on the Islamo-fascist hanging/murder of the two gay men confirmed for me that my recent decision to join the U.S. military was correct. I have to stuff myself back in the closet - something I thought I left a decade ago - but our war on terror trumps my personal comfort at this point. Whenever my friends and family criticize - I'll show 'em that link.
The Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative U.S. gay group, issued a statement reading, "In the wake of news stories and photographs documenting the hanging of two gay Iranian teenagers, Log Cabin Republicans re-affirm their commitment to the global war on terror."
The U.S. periodical The Nation published a lengthy investigation of the story. It criticized the role of Peter Tatchell and Outrage! in spreading the belief the executed youths were gay before it had examined the evidence. The article concluded that, given Peter Tatchell's "recent statements, it seems likely that his ideological disposition caused him to look past or dismiss information that cast doubt on the 'gay teenagers' story."
"very few people took the time to research the details of the case or even consult with experts who deal with such news on a daily basis. In fact it was almost a week later that we began to read more accurate accounts of why the teens were executed from international human rights groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission – all of whom have contacts in Iran and ways to confirm news of such incidents from independent sources. While no one will ever know why these two young men were executed in Iran, what remains clear is that the hysteria surrounding the executions was enormous and only fed to the growing Islamaphobia and hatred towards Muslims and the Islamic world.
Outrage! and Peter Tatchell continued to defend their initial claim that the two victims were hanged because they were lovers. Outrage! frequently attacked activists who took a different perspective. It accused them of being "apologists" and of giving the "Iranian government the benefit of the doubt. Other gay and human rights groups that had researched the case had condemned the killings as gross rights violations. Nonetheless, Brett Lock of Outrage! wrote that those groups "showed little concern" about human rights violations in Iran:
"OutRage! is appalled that large sections of liberal and left opinion in the West shows little concern regarding the murderous brutality of the clerical fascist regime in Tehran. We deplore the gullibility of many gay, left and human rights groups concerning the abuse of LGBT human rights in Iran. ... They have long swallowed Iran's homophobic propaganda.
Peter Tatchell accused those who disagreed with him over the case of "racism. Outrage cited the case to “urge the international community to treat Iran as a pariah state. Tatchell stated, "There can be no normal relations with an abnormal regime
Outrage! vigorously defended the National Council of Resistance (NCRI) against charges that it had abused human rights, as well as charges that it represented a "terrorist" organization. Outrage! referred to this as the "US State Department's smear." Peter Tatchell alleged that the NCRI was "heroic" and "is no more a terrorist organisation than the African National Congress in South Africa or the anti-Nazi resistance in occupied Europe during World War Two. While there have been allegations of human rights abuses by the NCRI, these pale into insignificance by comparison to the butchery of the Iranian regime.
Human Rights Watch has called the NCRI the "political wing" of the People's Mojahedin. It has documented how members were "tortured, beaten and held in solitary confinement for years at military camps in Iraq after they criticized the group’s policies and undemocratic practices." Human Rights Watch has stated that "it would be a huge mistake to promote an opposition group that is responsible for serious human rights abuses.”
Both Outrage! and blogger Doug Ireland have claimed secretive sources inside Iran to support their continuing assertion that Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni were hanged solely for being gay. Their source is Somalia-born activist Afdhere Jama, who lives in San Francisco in the U.S. According to Outrage!, Jama has told them that he has spoken to three people from Mashhad who maintain that Mahmoud Asgari, Ayaz Marhoni, and five other friends were originally accused of committing consensual homosexual acts on each other.
Scott Long of Human Rights Watch noted in 2006 that Afdhere Jama's sources "have refused to speak to anyone else, including human rights investigators," and that allegations of a huge crackdown against gay people in Iran based on their evidence are third-hand at best. Long wrote:
-It is impossible to reach a final conclusion about the criminal trial in Mashhad, given the opacity of the Iranian justice system and the authoritarian system in general, media censorship included.
-The preponderance of evidence suggested that the youth were tried on allegations of rape, with the suggestion that they were tried for consensual homosexual conduct seemingly based almost entirely on mistranslations and on cursory news reporting magnified by the Western press.
-There is no basis for imputing a Westernized "gay" identity to these youths. We have no idea what their behavior was or how they would have identified themselves, given the complexities around identity and sexuality in Iran..
Both Sweden and The Netherlands responded to the stories around the Mashhad executions by announcing that they would immediately halt extraditions of LGBT asylum claimants to Iran. The Dutch government also announced that its Ministry of Foreign Affairs would investigate the treatment of gays and lesbians in the country. Civil rights groups in the U.S., United Kingdom and Russia have also called for similar policies.
In March 2006 Dutch Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk ("Iron Rita") proposed an end to a moratorium on deporting gay asylum-seekers to Iran, stating that it was now clear "that there is no question of executions or death sentences based solely on the fact that a defendant is gay", adding that homosexuality was never the primary charge against people.. Under parliamentary pressure, and based on evidence from groups including Human Rights Watch that torture of gays in Iran remained endemic, she was forced to extend the moratorium on deportation for a further six months. In late 2006, also due to lobbying from groups including Human Rights Watch, the Netherlands instituted a new policy of removing the burden of proof from Iranian LGBT refugee claimants.
Scott Long of Human Rights Watch has written that "lesbian and gay Iranians are not abstractions, sheltered from politics—or missiles. Their lives should not be reduced to the agendas of well-meaning strangers in the West." He added, criticizing allegations he considered unsupported, that "If we want to challenge Iran’s government, we need facts. There is enough proof of torture and repression that we can do without claims of 'pogroms.'"
In 2006, the one-year anniversary of the hangings in Mashhad was designated an International Day of Action Against Homophobic Persecution in Iran by OutRage!, with vigils planned for Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Frankfurt, London, Marseille, Mexico City, Moscow, New York, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Stockholm, Tehran, Toronto, Vancouver, Vienna, Warsaw, and Washington, D.C., and with hearings planned in the British House of Commons. These demonstrations saw a renewal of controversy over whether Outrage!'s claims about the case had any basis in fact. Attempts to hold a new series of demonstrations in July 2007 reached only a far smaller number of cities.