Australia should have been a safe haven for gay Saudi journalists fleeing persecution. It wasn't

Australia should have been a safe haven for gay Saudi journalists fleeing persecution. It wasn't
5 min read
21 Nov, 2019
Comment: Australia's treatment of two gay men fleeing persecution in Saudi Arabia is a far cry from the liberal image it likes to paint for itself, writes CJ Werleman.
Australia legalised same-sex marriage in December 2017 [AFP]
Australia prides itself on being one of the world's most liberal democracies, aspiring to multiculturalism, tolerance and religious pluralism, and its citizens enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world.

In recent times, though it has exhibited an increasingly questionable human rights record, and modest drift towards right-wing populist impulses. Despite this, the land of Down Under continues to be a potential first port of call for political asylum seekers fleeing persecution.

Saudi Arabia, however, is a repressive, authoritarian absolutely monarchy that ranks alongside North Korea in terms of political rights and measures of freedom and civil liberties, according to the pro-democracy watchdog Freedom House.

When the House of Saud isn't ordering the murder of journalists, as it did with the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamaal Khashoggi in 2018, then it's imprisoning citizens without judicial review and executing non-violent criminals and those considered undesirable by the state, including homosexuals.

In April, Saudi Arabia beheaded 37 men in a mass execution, including five who confessed to being gay under torture. By contrast, Australia is home to the world's largest gay Mardi Gras celebration, with hundreds of thousands of people from across the world traveling to Sydney each year to participate in the weekend long street parades.

This is the backdrop to a story that has placed Australia once again at the centre of a global human rights controversy, one involving the detention of two gay Saudi journalists who've sought asylum on the South Pacific continent.

The couple, known as Sultan and Nassar in order to protect their identities, arrived in Australia in mid-October on tourist visas, but were held for further questioning by Custom and Border patrol officers in a secondary inspection room, where the pair admitted plans to seek asylum, according to Alison Battisson, a lawyer for the couple.

In April, Saudi Arabia beheaded 37 men in a mass execution

"Australia being very well known for being… a safe place for LGBTI people, they were incredibly surprised and distressed," she said.

According to The Guardian, Sultan and Nassar "lived a comfortable life of relative wealth and privilege in Riyadh," but fled the country after one was interrogated and threatened with their relationship being outed by authorities because of suspicions one of the couple had leaked internal government documents to a foreign media outlet, an allegation both deny.

"I loved my life in Saudi Arabia and I enjoyed helping the kingdom's image abroad by ensuring that the foreign media portrayed the country fairly and accurately," Sultan told The Guardian. "But after being unfairly targeted by the ministry of media and the presidency of state security, I was left with no choice but to leave the kingdom and seek asylum elsewhere."

Knowing the punishment for homosexuality is often death by execution, the couple fled to Australia, but thus far have not received the reception they might have expected.

"We ran away from being detained arbitrarily and jailed for no reason, only to arrive in Australia and find ourselves here in jail," Sultan told The Guardian. "We've been threatened with it in Saudi but it never actually happened until we came here."

The couple also allege they have been treated "like criminals," and threatened with violence by immigration detention facility guards, which brings Australia's recently growing record of mistreating refugees and violations of international law into further scrutiny, particularly in regards to how authorities mistreat detainees and the way in which many are held indefinitely.

Detainees are now held for an average of 500 days, according to the Human Rights Commission, "far longer than any comparable jurisdiction, and is increasingly using restraints.

"Australia's system of mandatory immigration detention - combined with ministerial guidelines that preclude the consideration of community alternatives to detention for certain groups - continues to result in people being detained when there is no valid justification for their ongoing detention under international law," warns the commission.

When I spoke with Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian-Kurdish journalist who had been detained on an offshore detention center for six years by Australian authorities until New Zealand offered him asylum status earlier this month, he explained how Australia's mistreatment of detained refugees is leading many to self-harm and suicide.

"We are human," says Boochani. "When you keep innocent people in indefinite detention for six years and deprive them of medical treatment, it's natural for people to lose hope and then choose to harm themselves. I am really concerned with the current situation because there's no guarantee or plan in place, and if the government continues this policy, more people will soon die."

That New Zealand has welcomed Boochani after Australia held him for a half a dozen years on a remote island, denying his claims for asylum, says much about the latter country's hostility towards refugees fleeing persecution from Muslim majority countries, whether that be Iran, Saudi Arabia or other.

Clearly, Australia must do better, particularly at a time when the country's human rights record is being called into question 

The fate that awaits both Sultan and Nassar remains unclear, but Australian authorities have separated the couple, holding them in different facilities.

"We went through all this shit, we have been together for 16 years, we went through hell, we went through this shit from his family, flew around the world, were thrown into a cell together, and now we're separated," said Sultan.

Clearly, Australia must do better, particularly at a time when the country's human rights record is being called into question by the international community as a result of its illegal offshore detention programme, police brutality against indigenous communities, military support for Myanmar during the midst of genocide, and its steadfast support of Israel's war crimes in the Palestinian territories.

Ultimately, a gay Saudi couple who have devoted their careers to the pursuit of journalism, and are fleeing legitimate persecution do not pose a security risk to the country, and Australia must act accordingly. 

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.