The Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has done an astonishing volte-face by admitting in a US TV interview that there are lesbian and gay people in Iran.

Only last year, in a speech at Columbia University in New York, he notoriously claimed there were no lesbians and gays in his country. “We do not have this phenomenon,” he de_clared.

Last week, however, Ahmadinejad grudgingly conceded there “might be a few” gay people in Iran.

“This about-turn shows that Iran realises its gay-denial stance has been widely condemned and ridiculed,” said Peter Tatchell of the LGBT human rights campaign group OutRage!, which has been campaigning in support of Iranian LGBT people for nearly 20 years.

“The fact that the President has moderated his ‘no gays’ position since last year is evidence that global gay protests are having an impact on the regime in Tehran,” said Tatchell.

However, although Ahmadinejad has conceded the existence of gay Iranians, he went on to make it clear that he doesn’t approve of their existence.

He denounced homosexuality as an “unlikable and foreign act” that is illegal because it is “against our values, and all divine laws….shakes the foundations of society…robs humanity…(and) brings about disease.”

The Iranian President made the remarks during a visit to New York to speak to the UN General Assembly last week. He was interviewed on 24 September by reporters Juan Gonzalez and Amy Goodman from the US current affairs TV programme, Democracy Now.

In the same TV interview, Ahmadinejad made this astonishing claim:

“Sure, if somebody engages in an [homosexual] act in their own house without being known to others, we don’t pay any attention to that. People are free to do what they like in their private realms. But nobody can engage in what breaks the law in public,” he said.

“This is complete nonsense,” said Tatchell.

“Iranian law stipulates the death penalty for homosexuality, whether in public or private. People suspected of being gay have their homes raided. Private, discreet gay parties have been busted by the police and the party-goers arrested, tortured and flogged. Years ago, some of those arrested at private parties simply disappeared. They were never seen again. It is presumed they were secretly executed.”

In 2005 it was widely reported that two teenagers, Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, were hanged in the city of Mashhad in north-eastern Iran, reportedly because they were gay. The government later claimed that they were raped for raping another boy.

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