Immigration

Saudi journalists 'outed as gay' still fear for their lives in Australian detention

The Saudi asylum seekers held in detention say they fled prosecution only to be detained indefinitely in Australia.

When Sultan* met with Nassar* in 2003 he did not expect to fall in love.

In their country, Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is punishable by death. Despite their forbidden relationship, the pair have been together for 16 years.

Both had been living successful professional lives as journalists working with foreign media, including CNN, while keeping their love secret.

This year that changed when, Sultan says, the threats to reveal their relationship began.

“Some secrets don’t have to remain secret,” Sultan claimed he was told during an interrogation by Saudi state security.

Sultan said he had been targeted for his work with foreign media. The Presidency of State Security, a body combining counter-terrorism and domestic intelligence services, was formed in 2017 and created uncertainty for those working with foreign outlets.

“I was told to stop working with the foreign media or I would be exposed as a gay man,” he told Dateline from detention.

Saudi state security outed them as gay to Nassar’s family in August. Sultan said Nassar’s family, who work with law enforcement, threatened to kill Sultan when Nassar refused to end the relationship.

“It is very possible I would’ve been killed, or he would’ve been killed. The sands of Arabia are probably filled with the bodies of honour killings,” he said.

It was when they were called to see a criminal investigation team that they realised a life together in Saudi Arabia was no longer possible.

“This was the moment we knew they would investigate, separate and arrest us,” he said.

The pair flew to Australia on tourist visas, with plans to seek asylum. After they picked up their luggage, customs authorities inspected their bags and phones. Sultan believes the officials saw messages to LGBTQI groups in Australia asking advice for those fleeing persecution for their sexuality.

When the pair told officials of their intention to seek asylum they were taken to a detention centre, where they have been mostly held for 38 days.

“I was never thrown in jail for no reason in Saudi Arabia but it's happened in Australia,” he said.

It was in detention where Nassar and Sultan say they have been intimidated by other detainees and saw drug use, including an incident where one man spiked other detainees drink.

“We were put in with criminals,” Sultan said.

The couple’s lawyer, Alison Battisson, said she was at capacity when Nassar and Sultan asked for her assistance but quickly agreed to help when they identified as gay.

“I said I would help because I’m aware of the dangers...LGBTQI people are regularly assaulted in detention, they are incredibly vulnerable and targeted,” she said.

“LGBTQI flee their country because they can’t live as themselves only to be put in Australia in detention where they can’t live as themselves.”

The pair were hospitalised for treatment of tuberculosis they contracted before leaving Saudi Arabia. Nassar has since returned to detention whilst Sultan remains in hospital. Sultan’s room is guarded, today he was allowed outside for the first time in 15 days.

“This is like torture … we are being treated like criminals for wanting to seek a better life,” he said.

“I am scared for Nassar who is alone in detention without me.”

A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs said the department does not comment on individual cases or the detention arrangements for individuals. The spokesperson said that placement decisions within an immigration detention facility are made on a case-by-case basis considering a range of factors, including the safety and security of all detainees.

Their lawyer, Ms Basttion, said if they were not stopped at the airport and allowed to enter the country, they could have filed a protection application, and live and work normally while their asylum claim are processed.

“Now, I cannot tell them how long they will be in detention...I’ve had some clients wait nine years for an answer,” Ms Battisson told Dateline.

If their protection visas or claim for asylum are denied, Sultan and Nassar will be deported to back Saudi Arabia.

“As soon as our plane lands we would be immediately separated, we would be thrown in prison and I would never see him again, which would kill me because he is the love of my life,” Sultan said.

The couple say they hope to start a new and normal life in Australia -- to work and pay taxes that would cover the expense of this medical treatment so far.

“For once, I want to be able to breath in the 16 years since we’ve been together,” he said.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of sources