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November 05, 2014

Twitter Not Safe for Saudi LGBT Citizens

By Anthony Hawkins

Twitter usage is booming in Saudi Arabia. And despite the monarchy’s crackdown on the right to privacy and free expression on the Internet, it continues to boom.

In July a 24-year-old man was sentenced to three years in prison for allegedly posting messages on Twitter requesting to meet other gay men. He was found guilty of “promoting the vice and practice of homosexuality.” 

The man, unnamed by the government and the media, was apprehended by an undercover officer from the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. They searched his mobile phone and discovered several “immoral” pictures. In addition to three years in prison, he was sentenced to 450 lashes over 15 sessions. Since the man was not convicted of sodomy but “promotion of homosexuality,” he did not face the death penalty.

The conviction is no surprise given Saudi Arabia’s horrific record. In 2012, a Saudi man was arrested for using Facebook to arrange meetings with other gay men. In 2002, three men were reportedly beheaded for homosexuality. And in 2010, a 27 year-old man was sentenced to five years in prison, 500 lashes, and a 50,000 riyal (approximately 13,330 USD) after appearing in a gay pornography film taken inside a Jeddah prison.

These cases illuminate the egregious nature of Saudi’s Arabia’s treatment of gay men and underscore the desperate need for reform.

Saudi courts base all rulings on Sharia Islamic law, under which homosexuality can be punished by imprisonment, chemical castration, and execution. The Kingdom is one of the few countries where convicted “sodomites” may face the death penalty.  Any married man who commits sodomy or any non-Muslim who commits sodomy with a Muslim can be stoned to death.

Abdulla, chair of the United Arab Emirates LGBT group said: “It is infuriating and disheartening when a country that was elected not too long ago to become a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), arrogantly and nonchalantly violates its core principles and harms its own citizens.”

Abdulla’s voice, although desperately needed, is not enough to counter Saudi Arabia’s war against its socially-isolated, underprivileged LGBT community. The case of the 24-year-old man, along with similar cases in which police have used social media to target gay men, shows the lengths Saudi authorities will go to seek out and prosecute individuals whom they deem “immoral.”

Saudi Arabia accounts for 40% of all active Twitter users in the Arab world, and ranks second among the world’s fastest growing countries on Twitter. If Saudi authorities continue to hunt gay men through Twitter—a site that provides Saudis freedom of expression in an otherwise restrictive country—they may be forced to find another safe haven.

Where that may be, however, remains an open question.

As cases of persecution via social media continue to increase in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, and beyond, it is more important than ever for the human rights of LGBT people to remain at the heart of U.S. foreign policy. To that end, the appointment of a special envoy for the human rights of LGBT people would provide a key figure to engage with the endangered and to combat persecution globally.