As British prime minister, David Cameron visits Saudi Arabia today, activists report the plight of a man arrested by the religious police who may face corporal punishment.

Activists are concerned for the safety of a 30-year-old man arrested by the religious police in Saudi Arabia for using Facebook to date other men. The man, whose exact identity is not known, was arrested on 23 December (2011) but full details of the incident are only now becoming clear after a detailed investigation by Gay Middle East. Experts warn he may face blackmail and/or corporal punishment.

He is being held in custody in the Dammam Police Department awaiting the Dammam’s General Attorney office for prosecution. The case has been reported to Amnesty International, while Facebook declined to comment.

The report by Sabaq electronic journal mentions that a Saudi citizen reported an unnamed 30-year old man to the Religious police in Saudi Arabia, known as the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which proceeded to apprehend the man who finally confessed that “the Facebook profile is his and that he had been using it for obscenity acts with other men”.

KSA law is not strictly codified and its implementation, in either a lenient or severe manner, depends mostly on religious Sunni judges and scholars, as well as royal decrees (and thus subject to extreme variability). Generally speaking punishments for homosexuality range from imprisonment and/or flogging to the death penalty. Conviction and severity of punishments depends on the social class, religion and citizenship of the accused, whereby non-western migrant workers receive usually harsher treatment than upper class Saudi citizens.

Sami Hamwi, Syria Editor of Gay Middle East, and former Saudi resident explains: “Native born Saudi citizens who are Suni or from the Bedouin tribes in the country are often let off, while punishment are severely executed against minorities like Shiites and or newly naturalised citizens. Punishments regarding homosexuality are also held against expatriates working in Saudi Arabia, especially those coming from Asian, African and Arab countries. Dammam is a largely Shiite area and if the 30 year old aforementioned man is a Shiite, he is likely to be trailed and sentenced harshly.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron is visiting Saudi Arabia today – already under pressure to raise human rights abuses with his hosts.

A British Foreign and Commonwealth spokesperson told Gay Middle East:

“We are aware of the reports and seeking further information. The UK opposes all discrimination against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people in all circumstances. We are committed to combating violence and discrimination against LGBT people as an integral part of our international human rights work. We believe that human rights are universal and that LGBT people should be free to enjoy the rights and freedoms to which people of all nations are entitled.”

Condemnation of this case has been forthcoming from NGOs:

A spokesperson for Amnesty International said :”Amnesty International is seeking more information on this case. If the man reported in the Sabq story has been arrested and charged with homosexuality, Amnesty International would consider him to be a prisoner of conscience and call for his immediate and unconditional release. Saudi Arabia has sentenced people convicted of homosexuality and ‘sodomy’ to a range of penalties including corporal punishment and even the death penalty. The criminalization of homosexuality encourages the dehumanization of lesbians, gay men, bisexual people and transgender people (LGBT) as their very identity is criminalized.”

“Amnesty International considers the use of ‘sodomy’ laws to imprison (usually) men for same-sex relations in private to be a grave violation of human rights, including the rights to privacy, to freedom from discrimination, to freedom of expression and association, which are protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The Lesbian & Gay Foundation also voiced concerns: “It is extremely worrying to hear that that the Saudi police have entrapped this man when we know that Saudi-Arabia is one of the remaining countries in the world where homosexual acts are punishable at worst Death, but also by severe corporal punishment and imprisonment.”

“We understand that because of the very nature of the country’s Draconian anti LGBT legislations there exists, by necessity, an underground gay scene, and if people are discovered to have fallen foul of official prohibitions they risk such entrapment, jail and flogging.”

“The Lesbian & Gay Foundation would like to see the UK government do whatever it can to make sure that LGBT issues across the region are seen as a significant human rights problem and we would urge all those concerned to put pressure on authorities such as The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the US State Department and others to be vocal in their condemnation of such acts which ignore the most basic of human rights.”

Peter Tatchell, Director of the human rights lobby, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, said:

“I urge the Foreign Secretary William Hague, and the EU Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton, to make representations to the Saudi government to secure the release of this man. His detention violates all the norms of international human rights law. In the longer term, Britain and US must stop colluding with the Saudi royal dictatorship. Sanctions should be imposed against the regime until it ensures democracy and human rights for all its citizens.”

Gay Middle East sent and email to the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in London which was read and ignored. To the knowledge of Gay Middle East, this is first known reported case of entrapment for homosexuality via facebook in the KSA. Gay Middle East therefore thought that a user of any social networking site has a right for privacy and asked Facebook for their comments on the case and its possible ramifications. Despite an email and a phone call, Facebook refused to comment on the issue.

While this case may seem to Western readers as breaching the privacy rights, Saudi Arabia does not provide the right to privacy. In fact the religious police encourage reporting of any “deviant” behaviour and deliberately entrap a person for homosexuality, for example a British male Nurse who was recently entrapped via fake SMS sent by the religious police.

Entrapment by the religious police does not necessarily lead to prosecution, but often results in life-long financial and/or sexual black-mail. Hamwi stated: “sexual blackmail and abuse by the Religious Police is unfortunately quite common. When I lived in Medina, a neighbour who was a member of the religious police raped my neighbour’s son, a 12 year-old boy, at that time. The same man entrapped and arrested a Pakistani national for homosexuality; the guy was whipped 80 times and before being deported. Such a sentence often applied when a sexual intercourse cannot be proven.”

If a person is outed by the religious police via a trail the consequences can be severe not only in terms of punishments, but lifelong ostracising by the family, the community and reduced or almost no job prospects. “The person may simply become a social outcast,” adds Hamwi, “it is a kind of a social-death or in some cases may lead to persecution by the family until the person is killed to save the so-called ‘honour’ of the family.”

Furthermore private communication is also not subject to what ordinarily would be considered in the West as the right for privacy. All communications (including electronic) can be seized by the government for evidence in criminal trials; previously men have been arrested for homosexuality via paltalk (a social networking site popular in the Gulf), and gay-dating sites.

Hamwi explained further: “the use of internet in Saudi Arabia is subject to monitoring, censorship and restrictions. Most online dating and social media website are blocked under the current Saudi laws. When trying to access banned or blocked websites users usually get screens stating “Sorry, the requested page is not available.” However, Saudis manage to override the Saudi proxy settings and access the websites they need.”

Hamwi interviewed several men living in the KSA about the situation for gay men in the kingdom.

Ahmad, a 37-year-old Saudi engineer, mentioned that he is concerned with using online dating services and websites. “Anyone from the “Hay’ah”, (the religious police) can use those websites to entrap gay men. This is not common, but it happened before and I don’t want to be socially humiliated.” Ahmad affirmed that non-Saudis and Saudi Shiites are more likely to be subject to the legal Islamic penalties than the Sunni Saudis.

Munir, a 29-year-old Syrian graphic designer working in KSA, said that the situation in Saudi Arabia is dangerous for gay men. “You see, when you are not Saudi, they can arrest you, put you in jail, lash you, and deport you. It is easier to be sexually deprived than having to face all the dangers coming from online dating.”

Fahad, a 42-year-old Saudi citizen, said that he rarely uses the online dating websites while in Saudi Arabia. “The situation here is complicated because of all the religious, social, and legal restrictions. Gay men in Saudi Arabia prefer not to have to struggle with the laws, since the media can easily raise a social anger when they expose their cases. This happens a lot.”

This article was first published on Gay Middle East.