Twenty-five-year old Roby Hurriya holds two pictures of his friend Saif Asmar lying dead on the ground, having been brutally killed by Iraqi religious police for having a “emo” hairstyle last month. Hurriya, a doctor’s assistant and also as a gay activist does not want to reveal his real name so he uses Hurriya, which means “freedom” in Arabic.
He holds his mobile phone with a picture of Asmar prior to his death, a teenager with a stylish haircut and another image of him dead, his body sprawled in the back of white pickup truck with his head fractured and bleeding.
“They laid him down on the pavement and smashed his head with a cement block,” he said.
In Iraq, the gay community has been living in fear for years, as religious militia maintain control of the streets in the sectarian warfare which followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Hurriya says in the past two months the killings have increased and are the worst he has seen. He also says that he believes at least 200 men have been murdered for their homosexuality or appearing effeminate. He personally knows 66 of them.
In the beginning of the year, death squads targeted two separate groups - homosexuals, and those dressed as “emo”, a uniquely Western-influenced style, which for some in Iraq is associated with homosexuality.
According to local security and medical sources, at least 14 young men have been bludgeoned to death in a span of three weeks in east Baghdad, an area dominated by Shiite Muslims.
Meanwhile, there have been reports of other methods of killing in other cities but these incidents have not been recorded by national authorities leaving the number of deaths unknown.
In the last few days, militiamen from Shiite groups, primarily from the Sadr City district, have distributed lists including names threatening to kill men and women for their “emo” ways.
Hurriya has been documenting the killings and runs a safe house for gay men.
“We, as the gay community, are connected like string. We know if anything bad has happened to any of us,” he said.
“A cleric from Sadr City who is gay called me a few days ago and told me that some gay people were killed and their bodies were dumped there. He helped me reach the place and take some photos,” he added
In recent days, “Emo” youth in Iraq are rushing to barbers to get their hair cut in a particular style. They wear tight jeans, T-shirts, silver chains and items with skull logos. However, stores which sell clothing and jewelry with skulls and band logos have started to take down their “emo” merchandise.
Last month, the interior ministry released a statement that labeled the “emo” culture as Satanic. It also said a special police force would stamp it out.
Hafidh Jamal, 19, a shoe sales person in an upscale Iraqi neighborhood, said he fled his home and had to give up dressing in black and cut his long hair as he feared he’d be killed just like two of his friends.