Three major international human rights groups called on Iraqi authorities on Friday to immediately investigate a spate of brutal killings of teenagers widely perceived to be gay.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission said in a joint statement that the attacks, which officials say have killed at least 15 youths, had "created an atmosphere of terror among those who see themselves as potential victims."
But security officials say these accounts are not true and that any violence against the teenagers, described as "emos" for their tight-fitting black clothes and alternative hairstyles, was unrelated to their style of dress or appearance.
"The government has contributed to an atmosphere of fear and panic fostered by acts of violence against emos," said Joe Stork, New York-based Human Rights Watch's deputy Middle East director.
"Instead of claiming that the accounts are fabricated, Iraqi authorities need to set up a transparent and independent inquiry to address the crisis."
Medics say at least 15 teenagers have been stoned, beaten or shot to death in the past month, while local activists put the toll far higher. Reports have said that some of the victims had their heads smashed with concrete blocks.
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In Western youth culture, the term emo refers only to appearance and musical preference and carries no connotation about a person's sexual orientation.
In Iraq, however, the term is widely conflated with being gay, which remains taboo in the conservative Muslim country.
According to Friday's statement, the victims "appear to represent a cross-section of people seen locally as non-conformists. They include people suspected of homosexual conduct, but also people with distinctive hairstyles, clothes or musical taste."
The three rights groups highlighted a string of anti-gay violence in 2009, but noted that unlike those killings, "the recent campaign has generated strong condemnation within Iraq."
The interior ministry said on March 8 that it had not recorded any anti-gay or anti-emo killings. It said the recent murders in the capital had been for "revenge, or social, criminal, political or cultural reasons."
In a February 13 statement that has since been removed from its website, however, it described emos as "devil-worshippers" and added that the ministry "has official approval to eliminate them as soon as possible."
Homosexuality is forbidden in Islam, frowned upon in Arab society and illegal in many Middle Eastern countries. Iraq has no law against homosexuality but prominent religious authorities have harshly condemned it.