Saudi sisters found dead in Sydney ‘claimed asylum for sexuality and religion – but were denied’

Saudi Arabian sisters Asra Abdullah Alsehli (left) and Amaal Abdullah Alsehli (right)

Two Saudi sisters found dead in Australia sought asylum for religion and sexuality, but their pleas for protection were reportedly rejected over lack of evidence.

Australian authorities discovered the remains of Asra Abdullah Alsehli, 24, and Amaal Abdullah Alsehli, 23, on 7 June in the Sydney suburb of Burwood. Police found their bodies after carrying out a welfare check as the sisters owed thousands in rent to their landlord. 

The women had been dead for more than a month when they were found. Authorities have not been able to ascertain a cause of death or find any signs of forced entry into the apartment. 

The sisters fled Saudi Arabia together in 2017 and made their way to Australia, where they made asylum claims. 

A source familiar with the application told the Australian one sister applied for the visa on the basis she was a lesbian, 7news reported. The other woman applied for a protection visa on the grounds she was an atheist. 

One of the sisters also said she was escaping a forced marriage. 

The unnamed source told the Australian that the applications were denied because of a lack of sufficient evidence. 

A source familiar with the legal case told ABC’s Background Briefing that Asra and Amaal believed a private investigator was following them. 

Their apartment building manager Michael Baird said the sisters were “very, very scared”. But he said the women “didn’t tell” anyone if they were scared of “something or someone”. 

An unnamed woman told the Guardian that she met the sisters at a queer event earlier this year. The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, noticed the women “keeping to themselves in a corner” and “looking shy” at the event when she started talking to them. 

“They mentioned that they were from Saudi Arabia, and we talked about what it is like to be queer there,” she said. “They said women live in fear of their safety and that they were grateful to be living in Australia, where they could more freely express themselves.”

The woman said the sisters were “reluctant” to “go into details” about their lives in Saudi Arabia and just gave her “short answers”. 

“I got the impression that they very rarely go out and hadn’t explored much of Sydney,” the woman said.

She added: “What’s terribly sad is they told me they were excited to be out at an event like this and that they were ready to start exploring more of Sydney. 

“They should have been safe in Australia.”

The woman said she contacted the police as soon as she heard about the sisters’ deaths, and she said the New South Wales police confirmed that “they knew one of the sisters was queer”.

“We spoke about how unsafe it is for Saudi women to be openly gay and that that would put a target on their back, so I wanted to make sure that the police were aware that at least one of the sisters were openly exploring their queer sexuality,” she said. 

LGBTQ+ people in Saudi Arabia face severe persecution and criminalisation, with punishments ranging from imprisonment, chemical castrations, public whippings and death. The gender expression of trans people is also criminalised. 

Five men were executed after admitting they had sex with other men in 2019. A court in Saudi Arabia sentenced a blogger to a lengthy prison sentence and deportation in 2020 for a social media post saying he supports gay people. 

In August, Tala Safwan, an Egyptian TikToker, was arrested in Saudi Arabia over a livestream which authorities claimed had “sexual content and suggestiveness that could have a negative impact on public morality”. 

Safwan denied that her livestream – which was of a conversation between her and another woman – had any lesbian subtext. She said the clip of the livestream was taken out of context to provoke outrage. 

Anyone who has any information is urged to contact Burwood police station on (02) 9745 8499 or Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.