By Michael Isikoff
A ranking Saudi diplomat told NBC News that he has asked for political asylum in the United States, saying he fears for his life if he is forced to return to his native country.
The diplomat, Ali Ahmad Asseri, the first secretary of the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles, has informed U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials that Saudi officials have refused to renew his diplomatic passport and effectively terminated his job after discovering he was gay and was close friends with a Jewish woman.
In a recent letter that he posted on a Saudi website, Asseri angrily criticized his country’s “backwardness” as well as the role of “militant imams” in Saudi society who have “defaced the tolerance of Islam.” Perhaps most provocatively of all, he has threatened to expose what he describes as politically embarrassing information about members of the Saudi royal family living in luxury in the U.S.
If he is forced to go back to Saudi Arabia — as Saudi officials are demanding — Asseri says he could face political persecution and even death.
“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 said Saturday in an email to NBC.
In a recent interview, Asseri and his lawyer said that the Saudi diplomat was questioned by a Department of Homeland Security official in Los Angeles on Aug. 30 after formally applying for asylum on the grounds that he is a member of a “particular social group” — gays — that would subject him to persecution if he returns to his home country.
Officials at DHS in Washington as well as the Saudi Embassy in Washington and the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles did not respond to requests for comment.
A Homeland Security spokesman said the department is precluded by law from commenting on an individual's asylum request.
Asseri’s bid for asylum is highly unusual: No Saudi diplomat is known to have taken such a step since 1994 when Mohammed al-Khilewi, then first secretary for the Saudi mission to the United Nations, was granted asylum after publicly criticizing his country’s human rights record and alleged support for terrorism. Asseri’s application could present an especially awkward dilemma for the Obama administration, which has actively sought Saudi support for the Mideast peace process and for sanctions against Iran. The Saudi government has long been one of the United States’ closest allies in the Middle East and its ruler, King Abdullah, was warmly greeted by President Obama at the White House last June.
But the Saudis have also been sharply condemned by the U.S. State Department and human rights groups for religious and political intolerance, including the treatment of gay people. The most recent State Department human rights report on Saudi Arabia notes that, in addition to denying political and religious rights to minorities, “under Sharia (Islamic law) sexual activity between two persons of the same gender is punishable by death or flogging.”
While the report stated there was no “official discrimination” on the basis of sexual orientation in employment and housing, “sexual orientation could constitute the basis for harassment, blackmail, or other actions.” It noted that in one case reported in a Saudi newspaper three years ago, two men in the Saudi city of Al-Bahah were publicly lashed 7,000 times after being found guilty of sodomy.
'Challenge to their policies'
Ali Ahmed, a prominent Saudi dissident in the U.S., told NBC that Asseri’s fears for his safety are well-founded because of his open criticism of members of the Saudi royal family. In the letter that he posted on a Saudi website, Ahmed noted, Asseri referred to “four princes” — who he did not identify by name — “who are paid salaries and allowances from the consulate and do not work” and yet stay in the United States “spending their time (on) tourism and relaxation as if they were created from light.”
“This passage alone is considered an insult to the king and his family, and a challenge to their policies,” Ahmed stated in a declaration filed in support of Asseri’s asylum application, which he shared with NBC. “This statement is enough to put Mr. Asseri in danger if he returns to Saudi Arabia.”
Asseri, in a recent telephone interview, said that has been assigned to the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles for the past five years. His problems began some months ago, he said, when Saudi consulate employees who suspected he was gay began following him to gay bars. They also discovered his close friendship with a Jewish woman from Israel. It was some time after these discoveries, Asseri said, that consulate officials began harassing him, refusing to renew his diplomatic passport or provide him with badly needed medical treatment for a painful back ailment. They also continued to monitor his private life and have demanded that he return to Saudi Arabia.
In recent months, he said, he has been living “in hiding” in the Los Angeles area.
“Words cannot express the anger I feel about how I have been treated,” Asseri said.
Ally Bolour, Asseri’s lawyer, who specializes in asylum cases for gays and lesbians, said that other Saudis have been granted asylum by the Department of Homeland Security on the basis of sexual orientation. But he acknowledged that Asseri’s case was unusual because he was a diplomat, thereby raising other political issues that might not be present for other Saudis living in the U.S.