The U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a preliminary ruling last week withholding political asylum for a Saudi diplomat whose colleagues discovered he’s gay last year while he was assigned to Saudi Arabia’s consular office in Los Angeles.
The diplomat, Ali Ahmad Asseri, who served as first secretary to the consular office, applied for U.S. asylum in 2010 under a U.S. policy that offers asylum to foreign nationals belonging to a “particular social group,” including gays, who face persecution in their home country.
“It’s not a matter to be taken lightly and I’m sure the U.S. government is not taking it lightly,” said Ally Bolour, an American attorney representing Asseri. “It’s certain death,” he said, if his client is forced to return to Saudi Arabia.
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Bolour noted that gay sex is considered a crime punishable by execution under Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist Islamic law. He said the country’s prosecutors routinely trump up sex-related charges against Saudi gays, effectively making homosexuality itself grounds for execution.
A recent U.S. State Department human rights report on Saudi Arabia says that under the country’s Islamic or Sharia law, consenting sexual relations between people of the same sex is “punishable by death or flogging.”
The DHS didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Asseri’s asylum case. DHS has said in the past that it never comments on pending cases. An official at the State Department, which has listed Saudi Arabia among countries that persecute gays, also declined to comment, saying it doesn’t discuss pending cases.
Bolour said that as part of its routine procedure for asylum cases, the DHS referred Asseri’s case to an immigration judge for an automatic appeal. He said he’s hopeful that the judge, on behalf of a special U.S. immigration court, will approve the asylum application. Should the judge deny the application, Asseri will appeal the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Bolour said.
“There’s a process that these things go through,” he said. “It was not approved in the first instance when we applied. Obviously, I think it should have been approved. But it hasn’t been denied and so we’re still on course.”
Bolour declined to provide details on how the Saudi consular office in Los Angeles discovered that Asseri is gay.
However, he told the Blade that an MSNBC News report in September 2010 that first reported Asseri’s request for U.S. political asylum accurately reported on the details of the case as of a year ago.
According to the MSNBC report, Asseri told the broadcast news outlet that he had worked for the Saudi consular office in L.A. for five years. He told MSNBC that he discovered several months before filing his asylum application that Saudi consulate employees, who suspected he was gay, followed him to gay bars.
“It was sometime after these discoveries, Asseri said, that consulate officials began harassing him, refusing to renew his diplomatic passport or provide him with badly needed medical treatment for a painful back ailment,” MSNBC reported.
Consulate officials also demanded that he return to Saudi Arabia, MSNBC reported.
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“My life is in great danger and if I go back to Saudi Arabia, they will kill me openly in broad daylight,” MSNBC quoted him as saying in September 2010.
News of the DHS preliminary decision to withhold approving Asseri’s asylum application was first reported last week by Saudi American journalist and blogger Rasheed Abou-Alshamh on his blog RasheedsWorld.com.
Abou-Alshamh reported in his blog that a Saudi dissident in Washington named Ali al-Ahmed told him the decision to withhold Asseri’s asylum request was “a political decision by the Obama administration,” which, according to al-Ahmed, is “afraid of upsetting the Saudis.”
In his blog posting, Abou-Alshamh did not disclose al-Ahmed’s source or sources for his claim that the Obama administration orchestrated the withholding of the asylum request based on an alleged desire not to offend Saudi Arabia.
Attorney Bolour called the claim “outrageous” and “ludicrous,” saying the DHS decision to refer the asylum application to an immigration court judge is a routine bureaucratic procedure far removed from the White House or the president.
According to the DHS website, an initial decision on an asylum case is made by an asylum officer with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is an arm of the DHS.
Officials with the LGBGT advocacy groups Lambda Legal and Immigration Equality said they were following the Asseri case even though they were not directly involved. Immigration Equality Legal Director Victoria Neilson said the case was unusual because it’s rare that a diplomat like Asseri applies for U.S. asylum on grounds of anti-gay persecution.