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Gay Saudi diplomat seeking asylum says 'they will kill me openly'

Consular official says he would be in 'great danger' if forced to return to Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is outlawed. His friendship with a Jewish woman may also make him a target, experts say.

September 15, 2010|By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times

In a public plea for help, a Los Angeles-based Saudi diplomat said he is seeking asylum because he believes his life will be in danger if he is 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 in the message, a copy of which was provided to The Times on Tuesday.

Asseri, who has been in the U.S. for five years, has fled his West Hollywood apartment and is in hiding, according to supporters.

"I am severely angry that I have been forced to be in this situation because of my personal life," 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 — which first reported the story Saturday — that his client 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 Aug. 30 by a Department of Homeland Security official in Los Angeles. He declined further comment until the case has been decided.

In the Middle East, where some Internet commentators have accused him of betraying his country, Asseri's account has been received with some skepticism. But human rights activists say he has reason to be afraid.

Homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia. An Amnesty International report cited a 2002 case in which three Saudi men were executed after being convicted of homosexual acts. The most recent U.S. State Department report on human rights in the country cites a 2007 newspaper report that said two men had been flogged 7,000 times after being found guilty of sodomy.

Ali Ahmed, a Saudi dissident who heads the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, D.C., said Saudi officials would probably be more concerned about Asseri's friendship with a Jewish woman because they would presume that she was spying for Israel.

Ahmed, who spoke recently with Asseri, said it was an "innocent friendship" between two people who met while they were both being treated for painful back injuries.

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 grown suspicious about his sexual orientation and followed him to gay bars. 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.

"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, Asseri posted an appeal to King Abdullah on http://www.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 to the king said he was more deserving of permission to remain in the United States for treatment than "four princes, who are paid salaries and allowances from the consulate and do not work."

In a declaration supporting Asseri's asylum request, Ahmed said the letter alone could put Asseri in danger because the Saudi monarchy does not tolerate any dissent, "especially from its officials."

Officials at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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