Gay Saudi diplomat seeking asylum tells reporters 'life is in great danger'
In a public plea for help, a Los Angeles-based Saudi diplomat said he is seeking asylum because he believes his life would be in danger if he were forced to return to his country.
The diplomat, who gave his name as Ali Ahmad Asseri, sent an e-mail to news organizations saying that Saudi officials had refused to renew his passport, revoked his health benefits and effectively terminated his position as first secretary at the consulate in Los Angeles after learning that he is gay and friends with a Jewish woman.
"My life is in a great danger here, and if I go back to Saudi Arabia they will kill me openly in broad daylight," Asseri wrote.
Asseri's account, which was first reported by NBC News on Saturday, has been met with considerable skepticism in the Middle East.
Mainstream Saudi newspapers have not carried the story, but it was picked up by the Al Jazeera satellite TV network and other media outlets in the region. Many commentators on message boards and in chat rooms questioned whether Asseri was telling the truth and accused him of betraying his country.
Human rights activists, however, have said that Asseri has reason to be afraid.
Homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia. Although the death penalty is rarely applied, an Amnesty International report cited a 2002 case in which three Saudi men were executed in the city of Abha after being convicted of homosexual acts. The most recent State Department report on human rights in the country refers to a 2007 newspaper report that two men had been sentenced to 7,000 lashes in Bahah after being found guilty of sodomy.
In his e-mail, Asseri said his message to gay and lesbian people who remain in hiding is: "Shame on you." He urged them to "release your fear" and "be proud because that is the way we were born and God loves you."
Ali Ahmed, a Saudi dissident who heads the Gulf Institute in Washington D.C., said officials would probably be even more concerned about Asseri's friendship with a Jewish woman because they would presume she was spying for Israel.
Ahmed, who filed a declaration in support of Asseri's asylum application, said the diplomat met the woman at a Los Angeles hospital, where they were both being treated for back injuries. He called the relationship an "innocent friendship between two people who have nothing in common except that they were both sick and in pain and in hospital."
"I am proud of my relationship with the Jewish woman and she is too because we both have a free minds and appreciate humanity," Asseri said in the e-mail.
Asseri's religious views could also put him at risk in Saudi Arabia, Ahmed said. Asseri acknowledged in the e-mail that he is not a practicing Muslim, although he said he believes in God.
Asseri told Ahmed that he believed employees at the Saudi consulate had followed him to gay bars and learned of his friendship with the Jewish woman. His fears mounted when he was told that authorities would not pay for further treatment in the U.S. and that he must return to Saudi Arabia to get his passport and diplomatic credentials renewed, Ahmed said.
"He said he sent letters to the royal court, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Nothing. Not even a phone call," Ahmed said. "So he was desperate."
In July, he posted a letter addressed to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on alsaha.com, a popular Arabic website, in which he railed against the "backwardness" of Saudi officials and "militant Imams who defaced the tolerance of Islam."
The letter said he was more deserving of permission to remain in the United States than "four princes, who are paid salaries and allowances from the consulate and do not work," but spend their time on "tourism and relaxation as if they were created from light, and I am from sticky clay."
Ahmed said the letter alone could put Asseri in danger because the Saudi monarchy does not tolerate any dissent, "especially from its officials," Ahmed wrote in supporting Asseri's asylum application.
Ahmed said Asseri has fled his West Hollywood apartment and is in hiding.
"I am severely angry that I have been forced to be in this situation, because of my personal life, losing my job and my health insurance and unable to see my family again," Asseri said in the e-mail. "It's not fair and I will not let it go."
Asseri's lawyer, Ally Bolour, told NBC News that his client has applied for asylum on the grounds that he is a member of a "particular social group" that would subject him to persecution if he returns home. Bolour said his client was questioned by a Department of Homeland Security official in Los Angeles on Aug. 30 but did not know the outcome of his application. Bolour declined further comment until the case has been decided.
Officials at the Saudi Embassy in Washington D.C. and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
-- Alexandra Zavis