By Meris Lutz in Beirut
Damage control in the digital age can be a challenge, especially when you're ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia and one of your diplomats just applied for asylum in the United States on the grounds that he's gay and friends with a Jewish woman.
The story of Ali Ahmed Aseeri's plea for protection was originally broken on Saturday by NBC, which quoted e-mails from Aseeri as well as a letter he allegedly posted on an unnamed Saudi website in which he described his country as "backwards" and claimed his life was in danger.
Aseeri, who is secretary of the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles, also threatened to disclose sensitive information about the Saudi Royal family to the U.S. media.
Despite an absence of any reference to the story in the mainstream Saudi newspapers, it was posted on several blogs and was carried by a number of Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian and pan-Arab media outlets, where it has been provoking considerable commentary and a fair amount of skepticism.
Commenter "Abu Khalid," writing on the Al Jazeera website, which cited NBC's report, accused the Western media of bias and "relishing divisiveness among Muslims," and called into question the accuracy of the story. Very few seemed sympathetic to Aseeri's alleged persecution, and many considered his comments against his country and his actions traitorous.
Aseeri "said that some clerics distort Islam's tolerance ... how can he be gay and say these words?" wrote "Mohammad, a Son of the Nation" from the seaside Saudi city of Jeddah.
Readers of the Left-leaning Lebanese daily Al Akhbar, which ran a brief from the Agence France-Presse, were equally cynical, but for different reasons.
"If you're not embarrassed, do what you want. If he wanted to leave Saudi Arabia, it's Saudi's gain, but why tarnish the image of the Saudis?" wrote one commenter.
Yet another expressed a sort of wry pity, speculating that perhaps Aseeri had fallen out of favor with the powerful Saud family, which rules the Kingdom.
"What a shame! so when he angered one of the royal family or someone close to them, he suddenly became gay and linked to a Jewish woman," the commenter wrote."I wonder about those ruling regimes in our Arab countries, may God help our people."
Homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia, which has been criticized numerous times by human rights organizations for its treatment of gays, lesbians and transsexuals. Aseeri claims that Saudi authorities refused to renew his diplomatic passport when they learned of his sexual orientation and that he was friends with a Jewish woman.
"They will kill me openly in broad daylight," he reportedly wrote in an e-mail to NBC.
The United States does grant asylum to individuals on the basis of belonging to a social group that faces persecution in his or her home country, but the burden of proof lies with the asylum seeker, according to Lory Rosenberg, an expert in refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International.
Homosexuality "being a crime on the books isn’t enough, but showing you will be sentenced to life or put to hard labor for 10 years, the courts construe excess punishment as rising to the standard of persecution," Rosenberg told Babylon & Beyond.
Rosenberg pointed out similar cases, such as that of the "Saudi swinger," an airline employee who was sentenced to jail for bragging of his sexual exploits on YouTube, could strengthen Aseeri's case.
"He could find examples of excessively harsh treatment for people who deviate from the sexual norms," she said. "Of course, he would also have to explain how he was living in Saudi Arabia all this time being gay."