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Gay Afghans can be deported to their home country, where homosexuality is illegal and “wholly taboo” and they must pretend to be straight, under new British government guidelines for handling asylum applications.
The new guidance for a country where not a single citizen lives an openly gay life has been denounced by human rights groups as a violation of international law, and criticised by the Home Office’s own Afghanistan unit.
“The Home Office’s approach seems to be to tell asylum seekers, ‘Pretend you’re straight, move to Kabul and best of luck,’” said Heather Barr, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Living a life where you are forced to lie every day about a key part of your identity, and live in constant fear of being found out and harassed, prosecuted or attacked, is exactly the kind of persecution asylum laws are supposed to prevent.”
The document, dated last month, clearly lays out the multiple risks to LGBT Afghans from their own families, from Afghan laws, and from Taliban insurgents who consider homosexuality a crime punishable by death.
It also suggests that lesbians and gay men “with what may be seen as feminine traits” would be at serious risk if forced to return. But the guidance goes on to argue that as the Afghan government has not recently prosecuted anyone for homosexuality, and the Taliban do not currently threaten the capital, a closeted gay Afghan could live safely in Kabul.
“While space for being openly gay is limited, subject to individual factors, a practising gay man who, on return to Kabul, would not attract or seek to cause public outrage, would not face a real risk of persecution,” the document says. “In the absence of other risk factors, it may be a safe and viable option for a gay man to relocate to Kabul, though individual factors will have to be taken into account.”
This apparently puts the Home Office at odds with United Nations guidelines on refugees, which specify that LGBT people should not be required to change or conceal their identity to avoid persecution, said Paul Twocock, director of campaigns, policy and research at Stonewall.
“These Home Office guidance notes on Afghanistan seem to directly contradict this. They openly acknowledge that LGBT people are at risk, but also state that they can escape persecution if they are careful not to attract attention by hiding who they are,” Twocock said.
“This is unacceptable and leaves LGBT people in danger. We strongly urge the government to change its approach.”
The Home Office’s own Afghanistan unit expressed deep concerns with the guidance. An attachment to the main document bluntly states “homosexuality remains wholly taboo” in the country and underlines that gay Afghans have to conceal their identity.
The lack of prosecutions for homosexuality since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 does not reflect an increased openness, the note continues, just greater respect for the rule of law.
“There is very little space in Afghan society, in any location, to be an individual that openly identifies as LGBT. Social attitudes and the legal position of homosexuality means that the only option for a homosexual individual, in all but the very rarest of cases, would be to conceal their sexual orientation to avoid punishment.”
It also objects to references in the report to the common practice of sexually exploiting young boys. “We are deeply concerned at the suggestion that the prevalence, especially in the Pashtun community, of the practice of bacha bazi [pederasty] implies an acceptance of certain homosexual conduct,” warns the document, signed by the head of the unit.
“Its occurrence reflects Afghanistan’s inability to deal with child sexual abuse and paedophilia. It should not be associated with consensual homosexuality and attitudes towards this.”
The Home Office declined to comment directly on the new guidelines, saying only that each claim is considered on its individual merits, and in accordance with the UK’s international obligations. “Where someone is found to be at risk of persecution or serious harm in their country of origin because of their sexuality or gender identity, refuge will be granted,” a spokesperson said.
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A few days before Christmas 2016, a phone call took place that no one could have predicted.
One of the world’s most esteemed HIV doctors, Professor Sheena McCormack – whose life’s work as an epidemiologist has been to track and fight the virus – picked up the phone to deliver a message that would make headline news: In the space of 12 months, the number of gay men in London being diagnosed with HIV had dropped by 40%. Across England it was down by a third.
No British doctor has been able to report a fall this steep in more than 35 years of the virus. It is the kind of figure that in medical circles is so large as to look jarring, even false; and yet it was true.
Behind this story lay a series of secret meetings and a network of people with one man at the centre who, unknown to the public, helped change medical history. His name is Greg Owen. He was the man McCormack phoned. Today his story is told in full for the first time.
Owen sits in an echoing meeting room in the BuzzFeed News office recalling that conversation, and what it was that McCormack really wanted to convey to him about those figures.
“She said, ‘Don’t look at the percentage; I want you to look at this another way. There are thousands of people who didn’t become HIV-positive this year because of you.’”
Owen started to cry. And after that call, he says, he used to cry every day.
“I knew I was doing something of substance, but I didn’t know what. It feels really good but it’s really overwhelming because how many people in my position get to do what I did?”
The man McCormack credited with this unprecedented reduction in HIV transmissions was not a fellow doctor, nor the head of a charity, nor even a politician. Owen is unemployed, a former sex worker, and homeless.
What he managed to pull off – and why – is so outlandish it warrants comparisons with Ron Woodroof, the AIDS patient depicted by Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, who in 1980s America smuggled in unauthorised HIV drugs for desperate fellow sufferers.
The difference is that Woodroof’s was an outrageous story that ended in tragedy. Owen’s is a tragic story that ends in outrageous success.
In the summer of 2015, Owen was 35 and working part-time as a barman and club promoter. One of six children, from a working-class Catholic family in Northern Ireland, he had come to England to train as an actor before finding his way into London’s bacchanalian nightlife. That summer, he was trying to make a difficult decision.
He had heard about a new drug regime that was being used to prevent HIV. The medication’s brand name is Truvada, and the regime – which involves taking this antiretroviral pill every day – is dubbed PrEP: pre-exposure prophylaxis. Owen, fearful of contracting the virus amid this unleashed world, couldn’t decide whether to start taking the drug, let alone how to obtain it.
PrEP was not available on the NHS and a private prescription would cost about £500 per month. But a major NHS study was underway to ascertain how effective the drug was, and who should be given it. The study, called PROUD, was being run by Professor McCormack.
“I heard about the PROUD study at a sex party,” says Owen, casually, in the middle of a much longer sentence. He talks at twice the speed of most people, with clauses within clauses and tangents branching from other tangents in a bewildering cascade of verbal Russian dolls.
The problem was that Owen was too late to enrol in the study. He was also increasingly aware of his own chaotic situation: After a relationship breakdown and a suicide attempt, Owen was sleeping on friends’ sofas and sliding into full escapism mode.
“I’d gone through enough risk-taking,” he says in his soft Belfast accent. “I was like, ‘You know what? I just need to do this – I take GHB and smoke crystal [meth] all weekend.’”
But there was another reason for Owen’s determination. He had watched someone he loved (who we cannot name in order to protect their anonymity) fall apart after being diagnosed.
“He was in a really bad state,” says Owen. The man descended so far into the drugs scene in an attempt to blot out the diagnosis that he had had a heart attack soon after. “He was having a breakdown. Everything was fucked.”
After trying in vain to help him, Owen focused on remaining HIV-negative himself and seeing if there was some way to help HIV-positive people more generally.
On 11 August 2015, Owen posted on Facebook to let his friends know that he planned to begin taking PrEP. A friend, who was HIV-positive and had been prescribed the drug as part of his treatment before switching medication, offered him some spare pills. Owen’s plan was to start taking them and blog about his experiences – a “blow by blow” account, he says, laughing. Owen laughs a lot when he isn’t raging, frowning, or grinning with delight – often with a frenzy of gestures. He is rarely still.
The day after the Facebook post, he went to a sexual health clinic to double-check he was HIV-negative before taking the pills. Moments later, the nurse gave him the result of the rapid pin-prick blood test: It was positive. He had missed his chance to prevent it.
“I felt sick,” says Owen. “I said, ‘I need to have a cigarette.’ I was in shock.”
The following evening, aware that his friends on Facebook would soon be asking how he was getting on with PrEP, and while working a shift in a gay bar, Owen posted an update on the site telling everyone he was HIV-positive.
That single act triggered a chain of events that would change everything.
“When I came out on my break two hours later, I had 375 likes, 175 comments, 50 shares. I was like, ‘Sweet Jesus,’” he says. “Then I opened my Messenger – streams of disclosures and supportive messages from people. I must have had 50 or 60 people in two hours saying, ‘I can’t believe you’ve done that, I’m HIV-positive as well and I haven’t told anyone,’ or, ‘I have only told my family and you’ve told 5,000 people.’”
But then the messages started changing. “People were like, ‘What is this PrEP thing and if you had it why wouldn’t you have become HIV-positive?’ It got to a point within a week where I would get 10 people a day asking me about PrEP – and that’s 10 people asking 10 questions each.”
Keen to get on with life and with his blog, Owen found the questions from acquaintances and strangers were proving a near-constant interruption. He told his friend Alex that something had to give. And it was then that he remembered something.
“I was like, ‘I’m sure I was at a meeting somewhere and heard you can import generic hepatitis C drugs for a tenth of the price,’” he says. This thought fused with the need to rid himself of the endless inquiries, or “these fucking bastards asking me about PrEP”, as he puts it.
He decided to set up a website with all the information he could find, thus allowing him to “walk away from PrEP”. He laughs at the irony. It would prove to do the opposite. The idea for the site wasn’t only to provide facts; it was also going to help readers buy cheap, non-branded versions of the drug – known as “generics” – from manufacturers overseas.
Owen just had to figure out how to do this. He knew someone who worked in a sexual health clinic, whom he prefers not to name, for reasons that soon become clear. He phoned the man up.
“I said, ‘I’m aware we can maybe import something? Do you know anything about this?’ And he replied, ‘Yeeeeees. Come in tomorrow at 3pm.’”
The next day they met in the clinic. Owen was told to keep everything confidential.
“This person said, ‘We have a handful of people who use our clinic and they have been self-sourcing generics from this website and we have been discreetly doing the monitoring – discreetly checking their blood periodically to check that there’s active levels of the drug.’”
In one sentence, everything was possible. There was somewhere to buy the non-branded versions of the drug – and at around £50 a month, a tenth of the price of a private prescription. And there was, potentially, a way to ensure the drugs were working properly. At the time, because PrEP was not available on the NHS, neither – officially – were the urine and blood tests needed to check that the drugs were not adversely affecting kidney function (which some antiretrovirals can do) and were not fake.
The man in the clinic, says Owen, then made the possible workable: He showed Owen which websites were supplying this handful of patients with the generics, and which ones they knew – because they had run the tests – were supplying the effective pills.
“I said, ‘So this is legit – legit but dodgy. Can we do this?’ And he said, ‘Not only can you do this; you must do this. We’ve been waiting for someone to do this. We’re diagnosing people every day and do you know how heart-breaking it is to know that PrEP would stop it and not be able to do something?’”
And that, says Owen, was all the motivation he needed. He and his friend Alex spent a few weeks building the website, gathering as much information as they could, and including a simple click-to-buy button that linked through to the pharmacies in Asia that sold and shipped the generics. They called it IWantPrEPNow.co.uk.
“At the time I was shitting myself,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘It’s not like I’m selling Viagra that might work or might not work – the worst that happens is you don’t get a boner – I’m selling drugs where people might rely on it for their HIV protection.”
But by then, September 2015, the results of the PROUD study were in: PrEP was enormously effective – comparable to condoms – but unlike condoms, this pill is not reliant on people being able or willing to implement the precaution at the very moment when desire can overwhelm. Add in drugs or alcohol, low self-esteem or even self-destruction, and the underuse of condoms across all demographics is hardly surprising. PrEP offered a viable alternative.
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Updated | An embattled White House terrorism advisor whose academic credentials have come under widespread fire telephoned one of his main critics at home Tuesday night and threatened legal action against him, Newsweek has learned.
Sebastian Gorka, whose views on Islam have been widely labeled extremist, called noted terrorism expert Michael S. Smith II in South Carolina and expressed dismay that Smith had been criticizing him on Twitter, according to a recording of the call provided to Newsweek.
“I was like a deer in the headlights,” Smith, a Republican who has advised congressional committees on the use of social media by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) and al-Qaeda, tells Newsweek. “I thought it was a prank. He began by threatening me with a lawsuit.”
Gorka apparently used his personal cell phone, with a northern Virginia area code, rather than making the call from his White House office or government-issued cell phone, where it would be officially logged, Smith says. The terrorism expert says he suspected Gorka “was trying to conceal the call.”
Smith says he did not begin recording the call until after Gorka allegedly threatened to sue Smith. In an email to Newsweek, Smith said that, “Gorka asserted my tweets about him merited examination by the White House legal counsel. In effect, he was threatening to entangle me in a legal battle for voicing my concerns on Twitter that he does not possess expertise sufficient to assist the president of the United States with formulating and guiding national security policies.”
Gorka did not respond to an email requesting comment.
Smith has been a regular contributor to think tank and TV discussions on terrorism, particularly the use of social media by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State militant group. Last year Foreign Policy magazine included him in its list of “100 Leading Global Thinkers.”
Smith has kept up a steady stream of jabs at Gorka since he learned that the Hungarian born, British-educated terrorism specialist had been hired by President Donald Trump’s top adviser Steve Bannon. Both Bannon and Gorka came from the far-right Breitbart News, where Bannon was editor-in-chief and Gorka was national security editor. On his Twitter page, Gorka describes himself as “deputy assistant to the 45th president of America” and an “Irregular Warfare Strategist.”
His views on the “global jihadist movement,” as he calls it, align with a small cadre of right-wing observers who depict Islamist militants and extremists as being driven principally by passages from the Koran, rather than by government repression, or sectarian, tribal, political or economic factors.
On Tuesday, Smith tweeted that Gorka “doesn’t know the enemies’ ideologies well enough to combat them.” In an earlier tweet directed at Trump, Smith wrote: “You are endangering the lives of Americans by hiring fake ‘terrorism experts.’”
Gorka earned his doctorate from a Hungarian university in 2008 and “a few months later landed a faculty job at the College of International Security Affairs (CISA), a new Pentagon-funded school that was still working toward accreditation,” The Washington Post reported. According to an online biography, he is also an associate fellow at the Joint Special Operations University, at the U.S. Special Operations Command, and holds the Major General Horner Distinguished Chair of Military Theory at the Marine Corps University Foundation, which was funded by Thomas Saunders III, a major Republican Party donor and chairman of the conservative Heritage Foundation. The program’s current director, James Howcroft, also a retired Marine colonel, told Politico that Gorka only “periodically delivered lectures or served as a seminar leader.”
The White House advisor was clearly wounded by Smith’s taunts. “Why is this vitriol popping out of you, every day now?” Gorka asked Smith in his call. ”I look at your Twitter feed once or twice a day and it’s half a dozen tweets about me, and I’ve never even met you.”
“Wow,” Smith responded. “Are you defeating jihad by monitoring or trolling my Twitter feed?”
Gorka expressed puzzlement several times that he was being attacked “by someone who’s never met me.”
“I’ve never met you and I’ve never attacked you,” he said to Smith, his voice rising in frustration and anger. “And your Twitter feed is an incessant berating of my professional acumen. Put yourself in my shoes, Mr. Smith. Have you done that? How would you like it if someone you’ve never met, daily and professionally attacked you?”
“Happens all the time,” Smith responded. Generally speaking, academics and journalists laboring in the field of public policy expect to be criticized for their views.
“It’s not happened to me,” Gorka said, “I can tell you. Maybe you can show me some trick on how you deal with it. This is the first time ever.”
In fact, questions about Gorka’s views and credentials to speak authoritatively on Islam and terrorism were severely criticized in lengthy feature articles in The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal in recent days. He also received a wave of unfavorable publicity in January 2016 when he was arrested for trying to pass through a TSA checkpoint at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. carrying a loaded handgun. He was charged with a misdemeanor and sentenced to six months probation.
One of his most influential critics is Cindy Storer, a leading former CIA expert on the relationship between religious extremism and terrorism.
“He thinks the government and intelligence agencies don’t know anything about radicalization, but the government knows a lot and thinks he’s nuts,” Storer was quoted as saying in the Post.
Smith asked Gorka why he didn’t telephone Storer, “who called you nuts in the Washington Post,” to complain. Gorka responded that Storer’s remark wasn’t “in a Twitter feed that is being sent to people on Capitol Hill.”
Gorka’s scholarship has also come under scrutiny by Mia Bloom, an expert on “transcultural violence” at Georgia State University. “He doesn’t understand a fraction of what he pretends to know about Islam,” Bloom was quoted as saying by the Journal. Bloom has participated in TV appearances with Gorka and at a panel last year at the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Nor has Gorka—who does not speak Arabic and has never lived in a Muslim-majority nation, according to news accounts—submitted any of his articles for review in scholarly journals, says Lawrence P. Rubin, associate editor of Terrorism and Political Violence, the leading journal in that field.
“Gorka has not submitted anything to the journal in the last five or so years, according to my records and we have never used him as a reviewer,” Rubin tells Newsweek. “We would not have used him as a reviewer because he is not considered a terrorism expert by the academic or policy community.”
A government expert on Middle East radical movements, who asked not to be named for fear of being fired, tells Newsweek she was disturbed to hear Gorka suggest at a talk he gave in Israel a few years ago that he knew of a “specific person in the [Obama White House] who was deliberately misleading the government” on terrorism issues. “He said he wouldn’t name the person on stage but would provide the particulars” privately to anyone there who wanted to know, she said. Noting the audience was full of potential adversaries, she called Gorka’s remark “‘beyond the pale.”
Several times during his call with Smith, Gorka invited him to the White House to hash out their differences “face to face, man to man,” as he put it in one exchange. They set a tentative date for March 8.
But Smith warned Gorka that “in absolute fairness to you, what you will hear is that I have very serious concerns about our national security,” and in particular Gorka’s role “as an adviser to the president of the United States.”
“If you make a devastating case, then so be it,” Gorka said.
“So be it?” Smith answered. “Then what, you’ll acknowledge you’re out of your league?”
“Yeah, absolutely,” Gorka said. “Bring it on.”
Late Wednesday, Gorka withdrew his invitation.
“Given your statements for the latest attack piece and continued disparaging Tweets against not only myself but the administration and the President,” Gorka wrote Smith, “consider your invitation to meet withdrawn.”
Correction: A previous version of this story attributed a quote by Cindy Storer to The Wall Street Journal. The quote was actually featured in The Washington Post.
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