As Qatar prepares to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the government has assured prospective visitors it will welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) tourists and that fans will be free to fly the rainbow flag at the games. But for LGBT Qataris like Mohammed, openly expressing his sexuality as a gay man is not an option. Doing so, he fears, would land him back in jail.
Mohammed was arrested in 2014 for alleged same-sex conduct, punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment under article 285 of Qatar’s penal code. While in detention, officers searched his phone, identified a man he’d been messaging, and attempted to contact this person to target him as well. Mohammed was detained for weeks, enduring verbal abuse and sexual harassment by police. Officers even shaved his head.
Seven years later, Mohammed has resigned himself to a life of discretion: he dresses in a masculine style, refrains from posting about his sexuality online, and no longer meets men from dating apps.
Mohammed’s seclusion is not out of choice, but of necessity. Individuals have told Human Rights Watch that the Qatari government surveils and arrests LGBT people based on their online activity. Authorities also censor traditional media related to sexual orientation and gender identity, including people who show support for LGBT individuals. They have effectively excluded LGBT content from the public sphere.
“There is zero freedom [to post anything related to sexuality online],” Mohammed said.
As Qatar advances its surveillance capabilities, including inside football stadiums, the possibility of LGBT Qataris being persecuted for publicly supporting LGBT rights will remain long after the international fans have gone.
Physical and virtual spaces free from surveillance are vanishing in Qatar as data protection law allows broad exemptions that undermine the right to privacy. When digital surveillance is combined with laws that target individuals based on consensual sexual conduct outside of marriage, there is nowhere left to hide.
The Qatari government should repeal article 285 and all other laws that criminalize consensual sexual relations outside of marriage and leave people like Mohammed living in fear in the shadows. Freedom of expression and nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity should be guaranteed for all Qataris, not just spectators and tourists flocking to Qatar for the World Cup.