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In Iran, a looming Internet "disaster" for LGBT community

Iran is instituting new clampdowns on Internet use, and is about to cut itself off from the World Wide Web. Activists trying to support gay people inside Iran say this will be a "disaster."

Iran has placed new restrictions on cybercafes and is preparing to launch a “National Internet” as part of an online war between Iran and the U.S. and with Iranian democracy activists.

Saghi Ghahraman of the Iranian Queer Organization, an exile organization which supports people inside Iran and particularly those who need to flee, told LGBT Asylum News that LGBT Iranians will be a casualty of this war as much of what her group does "in terms of communications and both-ways advocacy is done via Internet."

Iranians, like Chinese Internet users, have found ways of going around existing web barriers (Facebook is one of five million blocked websites but it still has 17 million Iranian members) but censorship and monitoring still causes practical problems.

Ghahraman said that recently a gay man "was traced" and they tried to help him to flee Iran, but "he couldn't do it because he had no access to internet at home (the lodgings he was using), and he couldn't down load files we sent him to read to get info, because internet cafes don't allow downloading without the cafe net owners permission and knowledge of the content. The guy could be harmed many times by his own family and by [government] agents."

New rules will make these barriers even higher with cafe owners ordered to check identity cards and record them against their owner's Internet use, which they have to keep records of for at least six months.

"Right now, when a young gay man in a remote village fears for his life, or a TS [transsexual] student is hurt by university staff, or someone is missing, or an activist wants the translation of a piece of news, we reach out and help, and believe me it goes way beyond what I can or I am allowed to put to word," says Ghahraman.

"Being connected to the outside, having access to internet and phone lines, for the ordinary people as well as the activist is what that saves their lives."

A gay Iranian exile explained to LGBT Asylum News that all Iranian Internet access currently passes through two Internet servers:

"Now they are planning to unplug internet from these two servers and it means there would be no more internet in Iran."

"If they unplug internet nobody can access to internet in Iran anymore. This would result in no contacts through internet to outside of Iran, no more news broadcasting, no more activities!"

Says Ghahraman, "even communication within Iran is going to be impossible."

Since 2009 and the disputed presidential election, Iran has been planning to shut off Internet access. In April, a senior official, Ali Agha-Mohammadi announced government plans to launch what he called "Halal Internet".

Iranian newspaper Roozegar has reported that the existing Internet access has dramatically slowed, because, it believes, the new “National Internet” is being tested.

Speaking to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, an Iranian IT expert with close knowledge of the “National Internet” project, said that the prime reason for its creation is not actually the opposition to the government but security in the wake of the Stuxnet attack on Iran's nuclear project.

That computer virus, believed to have been a joint U.S./Israeli project, devastated the uranium enrichment project, as Iran eventually admitted.

The U.S. is funding “shadow” communications projects globally, including what's called “Internet in a suitcase” which would smuggle technology into countries like Iran.

But Ghahraman said that Western governments had not been effective in supporting the opposition as well as LGBT people in Iran. She criticized "sanctions that hurt people", and urged them to "find ways to isolate and limit the regime of Iran."

One suggestion from activists to the looming Internet access "disaster" would be free telephone access to a dial-up server connecting to the Internet - a technique used in Egypt when that government cut off Internet access earlier this year.

"But it won’t last for a long time," the gay exile said. "[The] government can easily ban the telephone line of this server. So it can be used at most for two months for few people."

The Iranian IT expert also told the Guardian that Iran is working on software robots to analyse emails and chats. For this, and the “National Internet,” Iran is believed to be relying on Chinese technology, although that is denied.

There have been allegations before of the involvement of Western companies in Iran's Internet and censorship monitoring regime. In October the new head of Tunisia's Internet agency alleged that Western companies had secretly offered a free censorship software deal to the now overthrown regime in exchange for testing it on Tunisian Internet users.

Iran's attitude to its LGBT citizens was underscored last week when the head of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights told German politicians in a visit to Berlin that gay marriage is “immoral” and that homosexuality is a “disease.”

“The West says that the marriage of homosexuals should be allowed under the human rights charter, however, we think it is sexual immorality and a disease.”

“Why should we see a disease as a way of life, instead of maintaining our views on homosexuality and act accordingly?” Mohamed Javad Larijani was quoted as saying.

Ghahraman says that the regime is “aiming on getting rid of all everyone who is not submissive to the regime.”

"Those who are not submissive are not only political opposition, but the ordinary people, among them the LGBT, women, the poor, the ethnic minorities, religion minorities, the young generation, the sick, and everyone who has lost bits of freedom or health or livelihood or loved-ones under this regime. So, the aim is to draw a curtain around the country and butcher the people."

LGBT Asylum News urges action today for LGBT asylum seekers and asks activists to encourage friends and contacts to visit website for details or to check on any updates to this story.

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