Gay Iranian Desperate to Stay in Japan
By Harumi Ozawa, Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Shayda, an Iranian man who has been detained by immigration officials for almost a year at a facility in Ibaraki Prefecture, applied both for asylum and a special residency permit after he was arrested in April last year for overstaying his visa. He is desperate to stay in Japan because as a homosexual, he could face death in Iran, his home country.
Shayda (not his real name) came to Japan in 1991. Although he initially had tried to seek asylum in Western countries, which have granted asylum to homosexuals, his application was rejected due to his lack of English-language ability.
The Justice Ministry turned down both his requests for asylum and special residency permit in July last year and gave the go-ahead to proceed with a deportation order. At the moment, Shayda is asking the Tokyo District Court to overturn the deportation order.
"This is the first case — at least that I know of — of a gay foreign national fighting for legal status in Japan and seeking protection from threats stemming from his sexual orientation," said Takeshi Ohashi, an attorney representing Shayda.
Despite the unprecedented nature of the case, Ohashi stressed that Shayda should have had a good chance of gaining refugee status. "The fact that the Japanese government didn’t grant him asylum actually is surprising, because it should have done so in light of the fact that it has signed an international convention on the status of refugees," he said.
The government’s position
Representatives of the justice minister last week submitted to the Tokyo District Court a statement explaining why the government is deporting Shayda. The ministry’s argument can be summarized as follows:
- No cases of gays being penalized in Iran solely on the basis of sexual orientation have been officially reported.
- Shayda has neither been prosecuted nor served an arrest warrant in Iran. Therefore, so long as he does not call attention to his sexual orientation, his homosexuality will not pose a threat to his safety in Iran.
But the ministry’s first point is debatable, because gays in Iran are often prosecuted for their sexuality, almost always incorporated with other charges. Ohashi, who specializes in cases involving foreign nationals, points out that the second argument is simply unrealistic because it implies that homosexuals can enjoy safety so long as they don’t partake in sexual activity with members of the same sex.
Although cases involving the oppression of homosexuals in Iran receive little media coverage in Japan, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees recognizes the persecution of gays in Iran.
A UNHCR report on Iranian refugees and asylum seekers refers to homosexuals as one of five categories of vulnerable social groups in Iran.
It reads: "Homosexuality is forbidden by Islamic law, and will be punished. Sodomy, defined as ‘sexual intercourse with a male,’ is punishable by death if both parties ‘are mature, of sound mind and have free will.’"
Members of TeamS, a Tokyo group consisting of friends and foreign labor union members supporting Shayda, have also researched cases regarding homosexuals in Iran through sources like Amnesty International, Homan — a magazine established in Stockholm by gays and lesbians exiled from Iran — an Iranian human rights group and Iranian daily newspapers.
According to the group’s research, at least 14 people have been killed for sodomy or sexual deviation since 1990, although their charges were often incorporated with other allegations, such as espionage.
Nassim, who works with Homan, elaborated on the reality that gays in Iran must face. "If I tell someone in Iran that I am gay, my family will not wait for the government to kill me, a member of my own family, with almost 100 percent certainty, will kill me and no one will ask him why," he said via e-mail.
To Nassim, the Japanese government’s position on Shayda’s case indicates "a typical Asian cultural view," and he condemned the passivity of the Japanese government and its people regarding the struggle of Iranian homosexuals for human rights.
"The question is not to have a secret place...but to have your sexual orientation, homosexuality recognized in the law, and your love respected by society," he said. "(This) is what we are struggling for, because sexual identity is an important part of your human identity and that is why gay rights is part of human rights."
According to Ohashi, Shayda has already come out as being gay and is actively involved in the Iranian gay movement as a contributor at Homan, which in effect nullifies the defendant’s second argument. "Even if he were to hide his homosexuality, which would save him from persecution, he would be denying himself the freedom of expressing love in public, which would silence an important aspect of his identity for the rest of his life," he said.
"It would be difficult for homosexuals in Iran to remain silent about their sexuality, but it would be even more destructive to revoke the freedom of sexual orientation from someone who already has begun a new life in Japan based on his true identity as a homosexual," he added.
For Shayda, however, staying in Japan is more than just a matter of a self-identity, because he could face great danger, even death, if the government does not retract its deportation order. Nassim urged: "If Japan will not let our Iranian gay friend to stay in Japan, it should not send him back to Iran, but let the UNHCR help him to find a safe place elsewhere."
Caught up in legalities
Shayda came to Japan alone. He made friends, worked and became accustomed to his new life, which offered freedoms that were unthinkable in Iran.
Still, it took about eight years for him to come out as being gay, because he found it extremely difficult to declare his sexual orientation to the Iranian community in Japan. "In retrospect, though, he should have applied for asylum before he was arrested," said Masaki Inaba, a member of TeamS.
But according to Inaba, Shayda chose to wait for the UNHCR to recognize him as a refugee, rather than risk having the Japanese government turn down his application, and in the meantime, he overstayed his visa.
It would be easy to blame Shayda for allowing his situation to turn from bad to worse, to the point of overstaying his visa and being arrested. Sure, he would be in a better position today had he come out as being gay and appealed to the government for asylum the day he arrived in Japan instead of after being caught overstaying his visa.
"If only he could have acted with reason," Ohashi said sarcastically, referring to the "reason" of people who do not need to escape their own country.
"Back in their home countries, asylum seekers consider government officials as people who are working against their interests. How can you expect people who cannot even consult with their own lawmakers to put faith in Japanese government officials?" Ohashi said. "Most asylum seekers are not high-ranking North Korean officials, just ordinary people. It is unrealistic to expect people like them to arrive in a new country and seek legal help immediately."
The next proceeding of Shayda’s case is scheduled for May 8 at the Tokyo District Court.