Blood On Our Hands - Remembering Hussein and Israfil
When I stayed in Eastbourne years ago it pretty much lived up to its stereotype. Walking along the front I saw fleets of coaches disgorging hundreds of elderly people on zimmer frames and in wheelchairs - they probably still call them Bath Chairs in Eastbourne.
I almost expected that the hotels they shuffled into would be displaying not the Tourist Board Star symbols but rows of zimmer frame symbols: the coveted 5 zimmers if they have a stairlift, walk-in baths in all rooms and chop all the food up into tiny pieces.
Posters for the local theatre advertised an old music hall star who I'd assumed had been dead for at least twenty years.
Actually, the night I was there something really exciting happened and the local paper debated whether to bring out a special morning edition. A shop window got smashed. But nobody was sure whether it was done by a drunken hoodie or one of the visitors who'd had too much Bristol Cream and cocked up a three point turn on their zimmer.
In the morning, I gazed out of my hotel window on to the beach and a cold, grey sea. It wouldn't have been surprising to see the ghosts of the Eastbourne Home Guard patrolling that beach and scanning the horizon with opera glasses borrowed from the local theatre, ready to repel the Nazi hordes, to keep Britain a beacon of freedom and democracy and allow Eastbourne and places like it to slumber on into the 21st century - genteel, dowdy and slightly comical.
I wonder if Hussein Nasseri looked out on to that cold, grey Sussex sea in June 2004 as he made his way to an activity centre.
Did any of the elderly residents and holidaymakers squint at him, or even automatically smile at him in the way old people often do, as he passed them on the street?
If they did, he probably didn't notice.
He went into the activity centre car park and shot himself between the eyes.
Hussein, 26 years old, was a gay man who fled Iran and came to Britain. He had already spent three months in prison in Iran for being gay and feared execution if he was sent back.
In June 2004 the Home Office refused to grant him asylum and was going to send him back to Iran.
So he killed himself.
A private death in an Eastbourne car park was preferable to a public hanging in an Iranian square.
The Coroner said the asylum refusal was the 'obvious motive' for his death.
The year before, Israfil Shiri, another gay Iranian, died six days after setting himself alight in the offices of a refugee charity in Manchester. His asylum application had also been rejected. Unlike the mythical asylum seekers described in the tabloids, living the high life on state handouts, Israfil was both homeless and penniless, often sleeping in a wheelie bin. He was also in constant pain because, following his asylum refusal, he was unable to get medical treatment for a bowel complaint.
Now another gay Iranian man has been refused asylum and faces being sent back to almost certain death. In this case, the words of the judge who approved his removal have caused justifiable outrage. He described his sexuality as a 'predilection', referred to 'his coterie' of fellow gay men and spoke of 'unseemly activity'.
It's the language of an Eastbourne Colonel (Retd.), circa 1950.
This July two gay teenagers were publicly executed in Iran and it is believed another gay man suffered the same fate in August.
One Iranian gay rights group estimates that the Iranian Government has executed at least 4,000 homosexuals since 1979.
Our Prime Minister has stated that Britain went to war with Germany to stop the Holocaust, the mass slaughter of Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and people with mental and physical disabilities, and that was why the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker were patrolling the beaches of southern England in the early 1940s.
It's nonsense of course. Tony's grasp of history is as shaky as his grasp of human rights. And, given that gay men were imprisoned in the Britain of 1939, I doubt that their treatment at the hands of Hitler, had it been known at the time, would have motivated the tradesmen of Eastbourne to spend their nights patrolling the beach. Nor was Britain particularly keen to welcome the Jews who were fleeing Nazi Germany before the war.
You may also recall that, when no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, the reason for the war was suddenly transformed into concern for Saddam's abuse of human rights and his slaughter of his own people. Many crocodile tears were shed by Blair and his allies for Iraq's dead (the ones killed by Saddam, not by us, naturally), although it wasn't Blair and his friends who campaigned about abuses in Iraq at the time that we and America were happily selling Saddam arms.
Today our Government, like others, is making a lot of noise about Iran's nuclear fuel programme and the possibility that they may be seeking to build nuclear weapons. This concern, we are led to believe, is because of the nature of the Iranian regime, vividly illustrated by what I have written above. Our gay teenagers get bullied at school. In Iran, boys like 16 year old Mahmoud Asgari are hanged in a public square.
Yet our Government is determined to send young, gay Iranians back to almost certain death.
A Labour Government.
A Government that put human rights at the top of its agenda.
A Government that once boasted of an ethical foreign policy.
A Government whose Prime Minister sermonises and emotes with moist eyes and quavering voice about poverty and famine in Africa.
A Prime Minister apparently inspired by the ideals of Christian Socialism and who vows to defend an idealised concept of 'Britishness'.
Is it possible that some of the small number of gay Iranian men who have escaped to Britain had looked at the Visit Britain website and read this enthusiatic invitation:
'Awash with rainbow pride, Britain is a nation of excitement, history, talent and understanding......The UK is one of the largest populations of gay and lesbian folk in Europe, we also have equal age of consent laws (set at 16), partnership laws and even legal commitment ceremonies in some of our major cities. As for marriage, it’ll just be a matter of time!
So whether you're gay, lesbian, transsexual, Bi-sexual, in or out, be yourself in Britain!.......With our proud gay history, cutting edge culture and fashion, flamboyant cities and pulsating nightlife, isn't it time you came out...to Britain!'
It would surely be only fair and sensible to add the words:
'We've put all this exaggerated, self-congratulatory, and in places sickening, nonsense on our website because gay tourism has been identified as a key niche market for the British tourist industry. Pink pounds? We can't get enough of them! But if you're from a country like Iran, don't even think of outstaying your welcome because we'll send you back to certain death before you can say Old Compton Street.'
In the hours before their suicides did Hussein and Israfil feel just black despair or did they also experience puzzlement and a sense of betrayal? They had every reason to.
If I could speak to them now I'd say this:
I'm not responsible for the actions of my Government any more than you were for the actions of yours. But I still feel a deep sense of shame for something done in the name of my country.
The horror of what happened to you is that you escaped from one nightmare only to be plunged into another.
You died here not because of religious fundamentalism but because of political expediency and the callous inhumanity of politicians, judges and others.
Your stories and your deaths were mostly unreported in the British media. Sponging 'bogus' asylum seekers sell papers. Penniless, dead, gay, asylum seekers don't.
A small number of people will read about you here and some of them may share my anger at what this country did to you and may yet do to others.
I and some others may even find the time in our exciting, pulsating lives in this rainbow nation to write to the Home Secretary and our MP to try to prevent your tragedies being repeated.
A blog post is as quickly forgotten as most human lives, not least by the person who writes it. But, Hussein and Israfil, I'll try to remember you and how your deaths affected me. Sentimental, perhaps, and ultimately pointless. You were betrayed by my country and my country is stained by your blood. Remembering you and mourning your deaths won't change that but it's better than indifference.
And there's not much else I can do or say - a thought that's as depressing as the cold sea rattling the shingle on Eastbourne beach and warm blood spilling on to the concrete of a deserted car park.