(Reuters) – Two Saudi male journalists, who say the authorities revealed their romantic relationship in retaliation for contacts one of them had with foreign media, have been detained in Australia after seeking asylum last month, their lawyer told Reuters.
One of the men, who previously worked with CNN, the BBC and the Saudi media ministry, told Reuters by phone from detention in Australia that Saudi state security outed them as gay to the other man’s family, in September.
Homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.
The journalist and his lawyer, Alison Battisson, say that the two men cleared passport control on valid tourist visas, when they arrived in Australia more than a month ago.
After they picked up their luggage, customs authorities inspected their bags and phones, and asked them if they intended to seek asylum. When they said yes, they were taken to a detention centre, where they have mostly been held since, the journalist and Battisson said.
An Australian Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said the department does not comment on individual cases, but that placement decisions within an immigration detention facility are made on a case-by-case basis, and that applications for protection visas are assessed by highly-trained officers.
The two men, aged 46 and 35, remain in detention, one at the centre and the other in hospital under guard, after receiving treatment for tuberculosis contracted before he left Saudi Arabia, the older man said. He shared photos and videos of his location, but requested anonymity, fearing retribution by the Saudi authorities.
The Saudi government communications office did not respond to questions about the two men, and the claim that they had been outed in retaliation for contacts with foreign media.
Battisson, who handles high-profile asylum cases in Australia, said that if the two men had been allowed to enter and file a protection application, they could have lived and worked normal lives while their asylum application was processed.
“The known result … was that all the things – except death and torture – that they feared in Saudi Arabia came true in Australia,” she said. “They’re in an impossible position.”
Reporters Without Borders’ Asia-Pacific director, Daniel Bastard, called their treatment by Australia shameful.
“We obviously don’t want other Saudi journalists to be treated like Jamal Khashoggi, or (detained blogger) Raif Badawi,” he said.
The reputation of de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who wants to transform the economy, and open up Saudi Arabia’s cloistered society, has been tarnished by the killing of Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, last year in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and the arrests of women activists on charges including contacts with international journalists.
The crown prince has denied ordering the killing of Khashoggi, but has said he ultimately bears “full responsibility” as the kingdom’s de facto leader.
The case of the two men dates to March 2018, when reporters from Canadian public broadcaster, CBC, visited Saudi Arabia. The older Saudi journalist told Reuters that, in his ministry role, he facilitated entry visas, and arranged interviews.
He said that, without his being aware, the CBC reporters met two Saudi dissidents, who were later arrested amid a broader crackdown.
A spokesperson for the CBC said its reporters went through the usual procedures to obtain visas and conduct work in Saudi Arabia, and their interest in dissidents was part of their assignment. The CBC reporters did not respond to requests for comment.
The older Saudi journalist said he was questioned about the CBC reporters in September 2018, by the Presidency of State Security, which handles counter-terrorism and domestic intelligence, and reports directly to the king.
He said he was asked about the CBC’s contacts with the dissidents, and about his relationship with the younger journalist, then instructed to stop working with foreign media or risk his ‘secret’ being revealed. He began to suspect his phone, movements, and home were monitored.
He said that in September this year, his partner’s family was informed of their relationship, he suspects by state security. He said the family threatened to involve the police and tribal leaders, and the two men fled the country.
“I love my country … I’ve defended (it) so many times in the media,” he said. “It’s just I was put in a situation where we had to leave because it got to be too dangerous.”
-Gulf newsroom and John Mair in Sydney