By Kurt Bayer
JOIN OUR CAMPAIGN: Take part in Scotland on Sunday's online petition below*
HIS only crime was to be gay. For that he was half-drowned, brutally beaten and then fell into a coma. He survived, escaped from jail, fled his country and eventually arrived, exhausted and bedraggled, here in Scotland. And now the Government wants to send him back.
Syrian Jojo Jako Yakob last night pleaded with the Home Office to reverse a deportation order and spare him the certain death he believes he will face if he returns to his country. "I wish to claim asylum and I wish to stay here in Scotland," he said.
Gay rights activists demanded that homosexuals, such as Yakob, who were facing clear persecution in their homeland, should be granted asylum. But a spokesman for the Syrian Embassy responded by describing homosexuality as a "disease", which the country sought to "treat".
The 19-year-old is now to embark on a landmark legal challenge in order to reverse the deportation order so he can spend the rest of his life in Scotland.
Yakob fled his homeland two years ago after managing to survive a harrowing ordeal at the hands of Syrian police and prison guards, when he was arrested for distributing anti-government leaflets.
Following his transfer from police interrogation, prison guards soon discovered that Yakob, a member of the repressed Kurdish minority in the Arab state, was homosexual. He then suffered horrific beatings and was assaulted so badly that he fell into a coma. After being transferred to hospital, he managed to flee to Lebanon making for London, holed up in a lorry.
He applied for asylum and was granted extended leave by the Home Office, but was then arrested in Aberdeen last April after being found in possession of a fake Belgian passport. He was handed a 12-month sentence and sent to Polmont Young Offenders Unit in Falkirk.
His lawyers say his asylum application was then mistakenly withdrawn and, as a result, he has been served with a deportation order, pending a final hearing this May.
If unsuccessful, he will be sent back to Syria. He has been kept at Polmont as a remand prisoner until that date.
His case mirrors that of gay Iranian teenager Mehdi Kazemi, 19, who was this week allowed to stay in Britain after claims that he would be executed if returned to his homeland.
Now, while detained at Polmont, Yakob has appealed against a Home Office deportation order and has instructed top Scottish QC, Mungo Bovey, to fight his case.
Yakob is terrified of being returned to Syria, where homosexuality is illegal, and believes that if he returns, he faces certain death.
Speaking from Polmont last night, Yakob explained why he fears a return to his homeland. "I wish to seek asylum in the UK for a number of reasons," he said.
"My father is a politician with the Yakiti Party – pro-Kurdish and anti-government. I was arrested when I was 15 years of age for possession of anti-government material. These were basic leaflets for my father's political party.
"My father was imprisoned before I left Syria for 13 years for anti-government activity."
Of his arrest, he added: "I was then tortured. I was beaten. At one point I was put up against a wall and a handgun pointed at me. I was told that if I did not tell the authorities what they wanted to know they would shoot me dead. I did not tell them anything, I did not think they would shoot me.
"The police officer then shot me in my upper left arm. At that point, I told them what they wanted to know as I believed that they would shoot me dead."
Yakob says he was held in police cells for 20 days without charge and subjected to daily electric shock torture and beatings before being transferred to Ahdas Prison, by the Turkish border.
In prison, he formed a relationship with a gay prisoner named Hassain. Yakob explained: "Hassain was serving a sentence, he told me, for 25 years. He told me that the sentence was only because he was gay.
"The Syrian government claim that they do not imprison people any longer for being gay and that in any event the maximum sentence is three years. This is not true. The Syrian authorities will always find other charges to bring against a person."
After the pair were seen sleeping together in jail, Yakob said he was subjected to systematic beatings, which "went on for days into weeks".
He added: "This was all because I was gay. No questions were asked of me about my father's political party or any other political activity. All the questions related to me being gay.
"I was also subjected to cold-water torture, where I was put in a room and buckets of cold water were constantly thrown over me. I could not remember what day it was or how long I had been in prison.
"One day I woke up in hospital in a nearby town of Kamishli. The doctor who was treating me told me that I had been in a coma for 20 days. He said to the authorities that I could not return to prison as I was not fit and I could not stand trial until I had had a rest. He suggested that I be sent home for recuperation."
Yakob then decided to flee to the UK. "I went home and after two weeks or so I was feeling better. By that time I had decided that the only option I had was to leave Syria. I left Syria and in 20 days or so arrived in the UK by lorry at Dover. I wish to claim asylum and I wish to stay here in Scotland."
News of Yakob's case last night sparked outrage among Scotland's gay rights and equality groups.
Stonewall director Calum Irving said: "We have serious concerns about the UK's immigration policy, especially since it appears that people are being sent back to countries where their safety is not guaranteed and where they could be persecuted just for being gay."
A spokeswoman for Edinburgh-based Equality Network added: "I feel that we shouldn't be sending people back to countries where they will be persecuted, even if they entered the country illegally."
But a spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in London denied last night that torture of gay people took place. He said: "Homosexuality is illegal in Syria, but there are no special units to deal with this problem.
"People are not prosecuted – society looks at this as a disease for which they can be treated – it is a similar position to that taken by the Vatican. I cannot give a clearer answer."
Yakob will appear before a full immigration hearing in Glasgow on May 7 to determine his fate. Yakob claims that he wants to start a new life in Scotland.
He said: "If I was to return to Syria, I would either be returned to jail for my political activities, for having left the country and being gay, or alternatively I would be put into the army for the three-year period.
"It is likely that they would put me into the army on the basis that the army would kill me one way or the other."
Reprieve for gay Iranian
A gay teenager from Iran remains on temporary reprieve after Home Secretary Jacqui Smith vowed to reconsider his deportation to the Islamic Republic.
Meanwhile, human rights activists have vowed to take Mehdi Kazemi's case to the EU courts, which on Friday issued a resolution asking the Netherlands and the UK to "find a common solution to ensure that he is granted asylum or protection on EU soil".
The youth arrived in England in 2005 to learn English and applied for asylum soon after learning of the execution of his same-sex partner under Iran's sodomy laws. After the refusal of his request for asylum, Kazemi fled to Holland to avoid deportation from the UK.
However, a request from British authorities to return the 19-year-old in order to complete the deportation process was upheld last week by the Dutch Supreme Court. After an outcry from gay rights campaigners, who claim that the youngster faces execution, the Home Secretary has stepped in to review the decision.
We, the undersigned, urge the British government to rescind the deportation order against Jojo Jako Yakob and grant him asylum to stay in this country. We believe it would be an act of inhumanity to force his return to Syria, where it is almost certain he would be tortured and even killed on account of his sexuality.
* It's a bit of a lazy 'petition' - it's just the standard Scotsman on-line comment-fest, with the usual bickering and drama.