Saudi LGBTQ refugees live in fear of being kidnapped

A note from the authors: The piece published below was originally written for and pitched to Vice World News, who wanted exclusive publishing rights for it. Subsequently, the piece was delayed for weeks on end, while the editorial staff informed us that this was because the publication maintained a team in Saudi Arabia and they were worried about safety. 

We were concerned privately that this could amount to a case of catch-and-kill, so asked to be released from the contract to find another publisher. We were then told from a senior executive that they still wanted to publish the piece, and that it would be out within the next two weeks following this discussion. After this period, we were let go from our contract, with the piece not being published and with no more concrete update as to the precise nature of the problem. Following that, the story behind our piece was among those picked up by the Guardian, as part of an investigation into a pattern of behaviour at Vice with regards to Saudi Arabia.

The resulting noise created by the publication of the Guardian article helped us make the connections and get enough attention to be able to help place this important piece instead with Index on Censorship.

In the wake of the tragic death of a Saudi trans woman who was coerced back to the country before taking her own life, LGTBQ Saudis are speaking out against threats they receive from their families and their fear of state authorities.

Gay, trans, and queer Saudis living in the UK and US spoke to XXXX [see note at the end of this article] about growing pressure from back home, including fear of issues such as digital surveillance, paid informants and the involvement of Saudi officials.

Many of those interviewed about their experiences claimed that the Saudi state is actively helping families to harass and threaten their children, even after they have claimed asylum in the West.

“Accepting yourself as a member of the LGBT community, the day that you admit yourself that you are a gay Saudi or a trans Saudi is the same day that you accept that you can get killed at any minute, whether you are in Saudi Arabia or outside,” Kansas-based LGBTQ dissident Abdulrahman Alkhiary, professionally known as Wajeeh Lion, told XXXX over Zoom. Under Saudi law, homosexuality is an offence that can result in the death penalty.

Suhail al-Jameel said they were sentenced to three years in jail for posting this photo. Credit: Suhail-al-Jameel/X (Twitter)

For LGBTQ Saudis, online visibility can be dangerous. A gay Saudi influencer (Suhail al-Jameel, pictured) was given three years in jail for posting a photo of himself wearing shorts on a beach in 2019. A TikTok creator was arrested in 2022 for a video with ‘lesbian undertones’; two male journalists were outed as gay in retaliation for contact with foreign media; and authorities have even seized rainbow-coloured toys, claiming they encourage homosexuality.

In another recent video, nonbinary Saudi citizen Tariq Ali described how they had been arrested and charged with a “cyber information crime, for creating, sharing and sending content that hurts the national system, religious values and social morals, using the internet”. Ali claims that Saudi authorities “violated my privacy completely, stole my videos and photos and watched them, then prosecuted me for it.”

These incidents contradict Saudi Arabia’s efforts to present itself as more progressive to the outside world, including by relaxing female guardianship laws and allowing women to drive. The Saudi tourism authority recently updated its website to claim that LGBTQ travellers would be welcome to visit the country.

The dangers facing LGBTQ people born in Saudi came into sharp focus following the death of a young transgender Saudi woman named Eden Knight in March 2023. Knight’s suicide note said that her family hired US private investigators, with assistance from a Saudi official, to coerce her back to the country. There, she was forced to de-transition, and later died by suicide. Her family is wealthy and well-connected to the regime. Her father, Fahad al-Shathri, is a deputy governor at SAMA, the Saudi Central Bank. We reached out to the al-Shathri family ahead of this article being published for comment but received no response.

After Knight’s case made international news, LGBTQ Saudis in the UK organised a protest outside the Saudi embassy, where a number of people spoke to XXXX about their experiences. Many of those who spoke agreed to do so on condition of anonymity fearing repercussions from their families or the Saudi state. Most used their chosen names rather than their birth names.

Yara, an 18-year-old trans woman from Riyadh, has been in the UK for nine months and received asylum status. She says her family used to lock her in her room and forbid her from seeing friends, determined for her to get married and follow a traditional lifestyle. “They tried to kill me but I escaped,” Yara says. After she left, they called her daily, telling her to return. “A lot of people I know here, their family came to the UK to chase them,” Yara told us.

Fear of the Saudi state is referenced frequently by LGBTQ dissidents living outside the country. “It’s happening for all of us. Sometimes they go to our friends and offer them a large amount of money to give them our information,” said Prati, 23, a nonbinary Saudi protester. They added that families lie to their children to make them return, but “it’s always the same lie because the government or the embassy is saying ‘that’s what to say’ to their children.”

Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, the Al Saud, who gave the country its name, sit on top of the state’s patriarchal system. Yet the male control of power extends to most other Saudi families, and it is the men in these families who are responsible for the abuse reported by those interviewed for this article.

Dave, 37, who grew up in the Saudi city of Jeddah and the UK, told XXXX that he was subjected to serious abuse as a child. “My dad once took me to an industrial slaughterhouse when I was 10-11 years old to make me more ‘man’ and less ‘girly.’ He forced me to slaughter sheep in that place,” he said. “I had nightmares for weeks.”

Dave said his family “tried to lure me in many ways and gave me a couple of ultimatums to get married to a woman. My father once secretly colluded with the head of a hospital and a psychiatrist to coax me into conversion therapy. The psychiatrist deceptively befriended me and tried to convince me that he could cure most gay men, except if they were bottoms.” In some Middle Eastern cultures, playing a submissive or ‘female’ role in sex as a man is seen as more shameful than being a ‘top’.

Dave also claimed that another of his father’s friends, who worked for the Saudi state, allegedly threatened him. “I said I wanted to seek asylum, I couldn’t say I was gay. The guy threatened me, saying ‘we can get you back from any place in the world’.” Dave’s experiences resemble those of LGBT Saudis interviewed by The Athletic in 2021, which reported “multiple allegations of attempted cure therapy in some of the country’s celebrated “mental health” hospitals”.

Knight’s note, as well as messages reviewed by XXXX, said her family had hired “fixers” and a lawyer in the USA to pressure her to detransition.

“I cut my hair, I stopped taking oestrogen, I changed my wardrobe, I met my dad. And then had another breakdown. My mom kept telling me to repent or I was going to hell,” she wrote in the note.

The US government is now investigating Knight’s death and its connection to both US operatives and Saudi state-linked officials, telling VICE News: “We have seen these reports and are studying these allegations”.

Vague Saudi laws criminalising parental ‘disobedience’, cross dressing, and “disrupt[ing] the order and fabric of society,” mean that LGBTQ Saudis are vulnerable to abuse by family members because of their sexuality and gender identity.

Laura, 25, a trans Saudi refugee who lives in the UK, told XXXX she had endured terrible hardships growing up in Saudi Arabia. “My family found out that I am transgender, so they started to oppress me with all kinds of abuse that you can imagine,” she said, speaking to us at the protest “I was sexually harassed and assaulted, one of my uncles sexually assaulted me.”

Other attendees at the protest described their inability to trust people after being abused by family members because of their sexuality or gender identity. Emma, age 17, a nonbinary Saudi who has claimed asylum in the UK, told XXXX that following the protest at the Saudi embassy which they attended, bounties issued by anonymous Saudi accounts on Twitter were put on people who took part in the protest offering money for information about them. Several other attendees said they had had the same experience.

Saudi attempts to control Twitter discourse have been widely reported, with the use of bot armies, and even a spy who infiltrated the company to gain access to users’ private information. In 2022 a Saudi student who was studying at Leeds University in the UK was given a 34 year prison sentence after returning to Saudi Arabia to visit family, her only crime being a Twitter account where she followed and retweeted Saudi dissidents.

XXXX spoke to Micro Rainbow, a social enterprise supporting LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.

“When it comes to people from Saudi Arabia, there is definitely a sense of anxiety around being connected to people from their communities… coming from the fact that they fear that their family members have sent someone to find where they are,” CEO Sebastian Rocca said.

“We had a case of someone [from Saudi Arabia] who had to change their phone number three times because people from the community found it out…we had another where someone told us that their friends were offered an insane amount of money if they had disclosed their location…the pressure from the families is very, very real.”

“The people we support often come from very wealthy families and because of that their families have the means to send an investigator to the UK or to come themselves and look for the people we are supporting.”

For LGBTQ Saudi refugees who have reached the UK, the key, Rocca said, is to get in contact with an aid organisation for safe housing or specialist legal advice. He urges any LGBTQ Saudi refugees and asylum seekers to contact a relevant organisation as quickly as possible due to recent legislative changes in the asylum-seeking process, any delay will work against them in their case.

At the protest for Eden Knight, Yara told XXXX that “I would like to get a word to Saudis who claim asylum here… You are so strong, you are worthy. Don’t let your family let you down. Just continue your life, continue to love. Everything will get better.”

This article was originally meant to appear on Vice and we decided against inserting Index to interviews and stuck with XXXX. We contacted Vice for comment but they have not responded. However, the Vice Union have since issued a statement in response to the Guardian story, which you can read here.

Coalition to intervene in Canada Supreme Court case on confidentiality of journalists’ sources

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”100413″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]Twelve press freedom, media rights, and civil liberties organizations from around the world were granted leave to intervene last month in support of Ben Makuch, a national security reporter for VICE News in Toronto, who received an order from the RCMP to hand over all communications with an alleged Islamic State fighter. The production order came after Makuch published a series of articles in 2014. VICE and Makuch have been fighting to quash the production order ever since, but it has been upheld in two lower court decisions.

The coalition argues that the protection of confidential journalistic material from compelled disclosure is a fundamental condition of freedom of the press. Without it, the vital watchdog role journalists play in a democratic society is undermined, as sources risk being deterred from sharing information of public interest with members of the press.

“If the appeal court’s ruling is allowed to stand, it will be easier for Canadian police to obtain notes and recordings from journalists, which is why we have chosen to intervene in this Supreme Court case,” said Margaux Ewen, RSF North America Director. “As one of the world’s strongest democracies, Canada must set a positive example of protecting journalists’ sources, not a negative one, by ensuring that journalists operate without government interference in their reporting. ”

“The outcome in this case will send an important signal about press freedom to other countries“, said Joy Hyvarinen, Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship. “ It is extremely important that Canada’s courts ensure the protection of journalistic sources and safeguard press freedom.”

“At a time when the press is more threatened than ever, Canada should set an example for press freedom, said Alexandra Ellerbeck, North America program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “Undermining the ability of journalists to operate independently and keep their reporting product private sends the opposite message.”

“Protection of journalistic sources is essential to ensure proper investigative journalism, said Media Legal Defense Initiative (MLDI)’s Legal Director Padraig Hughes. “We hope the court will recognise that the risk to investigative journalism where the press are forced to reveal source material to law enforcement is very real, and will have a serious impact on their role as a ‘public watchdog.’”

The Supreme Court’s decision in the VICE case comes at an important time in Canada when journalists’ sources have recently been under threat. At least 13 journalists were under police surveillance in Quebec between 2013 and 2016 in an effort to identify leaks within the police force, prompting the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry which recommended stronger provincial legislation be adopted to protect source confidentiality. In October of last year, Canada’s parliament unanimously adopted the Journalistic Source Protection Act, a federal “shield law” designed to protect sources and whistleblowers. Despite the new legislation, Marie-Maude Denis, an investigative reporter for Radio-Canada, was ordered by a Quebec Superior Court in March to reveal her sources in a Quebec City corruption case. The court applied the shield law, but ultimately ruled that the public’s interest in the outcome of the trial outweighed that of journalistic source protection. Radio-Canada is currently fighting the order to compel Denis’ testimony.

The Journalistic Source Protection Act does not apply in the VICE case.

The coalition comprises Article 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Index on Censorship, the International Human Rights Program/University of Toronto Faculty of Law, the International Press Institute, Media Law Resource Center, Media Legal Defense Initiative, PEN Canada, PEN International, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Reporters Without Borders, and World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1526545460052-055aac87-916b-7″ taxonomies=”6534″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

CNN announced as media partner for Freedom of Expression Awards 2017

Index on Censorship is delighted to announce CNN as its media partner for the 2017 Freedom of Expression Awards.

The awards, now in their 17th year, honour those at the forefront of tackling censorship in the field of arts, campaigning, digital advocacy and journalism. Many of the winners face regular persecution for their work, including jail, death threats or harassment.

Award winners are honoured at a gala ceremony in London in April and receive training, promotion and year-long assistance from Index as part of their prize.

Judges for this year’s awards include Harry Potter actor Noma Dumezweni, former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown and award-winning lawyer Caoilfhionn Gallagher, who represented the families of the victims of the Hillsborough football disaster.

“The media is under threat throughout the world – and not just from ‘traditional’ enemies,” said Jodie Ginsberg, Index on Censorship chief executive. “In Europe, journalists and journalism organisations are under severe pressure. Governments are widening surveillance powers and national security laws in a way that makes investigating corruption and malpractice ever more difficult. In the United States, the language coming from those at the top is painting the media as the enemy.”

“Given the pressures facing the media, it’s great to be working with an organisation that understands and recognises these threats through its work internationally,” she added.

“CNN is proud to support journalism through our extensive affiliate network of over 1,100 broadcast and digital publishers worldwide,” said Greg Beitchman, Vice President, Content Sales and Partnerships, CNN International Commercial. “We admire the work done by the Freedom of Expression Awards and look forward to being part of this important initiative to recognise vital journalism done all over the world.”

In addition to CNN, VICE News has also renewed its sponsorship of the Index awards. In 2016, VICE News journalists Philip Pendlebury and Jake Hanrahan presented the Freedom of Expression Award for Journalism to Zaina Erhaim, a Syrian-based journalist training female reporters. Index had campaigned for Phil and Jake’s release and that of their colleague Mohammed Rasool after they were arrested and imprisoned by Turkish authorities on charges of assisting a terrorist organisation.

Neil Breakwell, London Bureau Chief, VICE News said: “VICE News is proud to support the Index on Censorship awards and the courageous work of journalists, many of whom risk their lives daily to bring us the news.”

He added: “2016 has seen an alarming increase in the arbitrary arrests of reporters, the silencing of dissenting news outlets and threats of violence to media workers around the world. Impartial, fact-based journalism has never been more important and neither has the work of those, like Index, who strive to protect it.”

Previous winners of the Freedom of Expression awards include Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim and Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Hundreds of public nominations are made for the awards each year. Many of those nominated are regularly targeted by authorities or by criminal and extremist groups for their work.

The shortlist for the 2017 awards will be announced in early 2017 and the winners will be announced on 19 April at the Unicorn Theatre, London.

For more information, please contact: Sean Gallagher – [email protected].

Notes for editors

Index on Censorship, founded in 1972 by poet Stephen Spender, campaigns for freedom of expression worldwide. Its award-winning quarterly magazine has featured writers such as Vaclav Havel, Nadine Gordimer, Arthur Miller, Philip Pullman, Salman Rushdie, Aung San Suu Kyi and Amartya Sen.

Award winners become Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award Fellows and receive training and support for a year after the awards to help them maximise the impact of their work.


Turkey: Index condemns killing of lawyer during press conference

Index on Censorship condemns the killing of Turkish human rights lawyer Tahir Elci, who was shot during a press conference on Saturday.

Elci, was briefly detained and questioned last month for saying during a live news program that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is not a terrorist organisation. According to The Guardian newspaper, he was charged soon after with making terrorist propaganda and was facing more than seven years in prison.

The human rights defender was the lawyer for Mohammed Rasool, a journalist with Vice News, who remains in prison awaiting trial on charges of aiding a terrorist organisation.

The shooting comes amid a rapid deterioration for free expression in Turkey. Index on Censorship was part of a delegation to the country last month that met officials and journalists including Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of Turkish daily newspaper Cumhuriyet.

Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, the newspaper’s Ankara bureau chief, were both arrested and charged last week with aiding an armed terrorist organisation.

“Index condemns the murder of Tahir Elci and urges the Turkish authorities to fulfil its democratic obligations to protect the legal and media professions. We also ask the European Union to do more to hold Turkey, which seeks membership of the EU, to account,” said Index on Censorship CEO Jodie Ginsberg.

Turkey’s deterioration has been documented by Index’s Mapping Media Freedom project, which monitors media violations across Europe. There have been 177 verified reports in the country since the map was launched in May 2014.