A State Department spokesperson on Monday declined to say whether Secretary of State John Kerry specifically discussed Saudi Arabia’s LGBT rights record during his meeting with the country’s king late last month.
Jen Psaki told the Washington Blade during her daily press briefing that the focus of the meeting with King Abdullah that took place in the city of Jiddah on June 27 was “really about the dire situation” in Iraq with a group of Sunni extremists who have taken control of wide swaths of the country in recent weeks.
“That doesn’t mean that we don’t raise human rights issues — including LGBT rights issues — with a range of countries at many opportunities,” said Psaki. “As you know we have a very active embassy on the ground with a range of senior officials on the ground, but I don’t have any other specific readouts.”
Psaki at the beginning of the briefing highlighted Waleed Abul-Khair, a prominent Saudi human rights lawyer who received a 15-year prison sentence and a 15-year travel ban from a Jiddah court on Sunday as the Associated Press reported.
“The United States is troubled by the 15-year prison sentence, travel ban and steep fine handed down on human rights lawyer and activist Waleed Abul-Khair,” she said. “We urge the Saudi government to respect international human rights norms, a point we have made to them regularly.”
Psaki directed the Blade to the State Department’s website when asked to provide statements from the last year that specifically address Saudi Arabia’s LGBT rights record.
“We also issue an annual report on human rights, where we outline any concerns we have about every country,” she added. “We don’t hold back in that regard.”
Psaki was pressed further on whether she feels the U.S. efforts to urge the Saudi government to respect “international human rights standards” have produced any tangible results.
“It’s important to continue to highlight issues where we have concerns,” she said. “That’s why we issue statements and why we talk about them from the briefing and why the secretary raises them.”
The State Department’s 2013 Human Rights Report notes consensual same-sex sexual acts remain punishable by death in Saudi Arabia under the kingdom’s interpretation of Islamic Shariah law.
The same report notes it is illegal for men “to behave like women” or wear women’s clothing. The State Department also documents incidents of anti-LGBT violence and discrimination in employment, housing and access to education and health care.
The report said that Saudi authorities in 2012 announced that gay men, “tomboys” and “emos” — those who wear tight clothing — would not be allowed to attend public schools and universities in the kingdom until they changed their “appearance and behavior.” The State Department said the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice or the “religious police” that enforces Shariah law in Saudi Arabia announced it would enforce this rule on “girls who adopt masculine appearances” and those “emulating the ‘emo’ subculture.”
The Blade’s efforts to reach LGBT rights advocates in Saudi Arabia were unsuccessful.
Oren Adaki and David Andrew Weinberg of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a D.C. think tank, note in their June 26 op-ed in the Blade that a textbook used in Saudi high schools says the most important debate about gay men is the best way to kill them.
The two men wrote that a Saudi imam said during a March 28 sermon at the Grand Mosque in Mecca that homosexuality “violates the sanctity of Allah, kills chastity and slaughters virtue.” He made this and other anti-LGBT statements on the same day President Obama met with Abdullah in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
Kerry in a July 1 statement welcomed Saudi Arabia’s $500 million pledge to help fund the response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Iraq as civilians flea areas of the country of which Sunni extremists have gained control.
U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Joseph Westphal in April issued a statement that celebrated the ninth anniversary of Abdullah’s ascension to the throne.
“We commend you for your far-sighted leadership of the kingdom and look forward to continuing our cooperation for the benefit of both the American and Saudi people,” said Westphal.
Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker in March led what a State Department press release described as a “senior-executive” delegation to Saudi Arabia “to highlight bilateral trade opportunities.”
A 140-member Saudi delegation in May traveled to Houston to attend a trade show for the oil and gas industry.
Lesbian Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who married her partner of more than two decades, Kathy Hubbard, in January, won re-election last November for a third term in office.
“Our government is turning a blind eye as Saudi Arabia throws gay men in jail, tells lesbians that they are not entitled to an elementary-level education and teaches in school books that the only worthwhile debate about homosexuals is how best to murder them,” Weinberg told the Blade in response to Psaki’s comments. “This shocks the conscience.”