PETER TATCHELL reveals how he used spy novels to outwit Qatar security
Hidden placards, cover stories and a tourist disguise… Gay rights campaigner PETER TATCHELL reveals how he borrowed ruses from spy novel plots to outwit Qatar’s security and stage a one-man demonstration weeks before World Cup kicks off
My heart was racing as I stopped outside Qatar’s National Museum and prepared to stage the first gay rights protest the Gulf state had ever seen.
As planned, I removed my top to reveal a T-shirt emblazoned with the hashtag ‘QatarAntiGay’ before unfurling a placard denouncing Qatar’s persecution of its LGBT+ citizens with the words: ‘Qatar arrests, jails & subjects LGBTs to “conversion”.’
I admit I was scared. Homosexuality, and all forms of protest, are illegal in Qatar, and though I have a lifelong record of campaigning for LGBT+ rights — sometimes in very dangerous places — Qatar is a police state. I was fearful of being arrested, jailed and perhaps beaten up.
Amazingly, I was able to stand on the bustling thoroughfare outside the National Museum with my placard for a full 35 minutes before a white Land Cruiser carrying state security officials arrived.
British human rights activist Peter Tatchell has been arrested in Qatar today for staging a public LGBT protest (pictured), 26 days before the start of the 2022 World Cup
Apparently unsure of quite how to react to such a brazen display of dissent by a Westerner, they leaned out of the window to take photographs before phoning for back-up. Shortly afterwards two more Land Cruisers turned up — followed by the police.
When they approached me, I adopted a tactic I have used many times in the past when confronted by police. In a bid to psychologically disarm them, I smiled, shook their hands and engaged in a little banter.
It worked. Seeing me as friendly and unthreatening, they adopted a firm but polite demeanour.
The officers spoke little English and, when they were lost for words, used Google Translate to warn me that my protest was illegal and could incur serious penalties.
The police, taking their orders from the state security officers, then confiscated my placard and interrogated me. When had I arrived in Qatar? Where was I staying? What was the protest about? What did I do in London? Did I have any local contacts? And so on.
Footage from the site showed that Tatchell was approached by a Qatari police officer, who appeared to take issue with what was written on the sign. The officer then folded the placard up and handed it back to Tatchell. The footage did not show Tatchell being arrested
Then, one of them noticed Simon Harris, a colleague from my human rights charity in London, who had helped smuggle my placard into the country and who was filming events on his phone.
They immediately seized his phone and deleted all the photos and videos he had taken of the protest. Fortunately, he had already uploaded some to the internet, and it was these images that would later make headlines around the world.
They detained us on the kerbside for nearly an hour, photographing all the pages of our passports and, when we said we had an onward flight to Australia that night, they photographed our boarding passes, too.
All the while, the security people were having agitated phone conversations in Arabic. I guess they were contacting their superiors for instructions on what to do. After all, it was an unprecedented situation.
Eventually, they said something like: ‘You’ve got a flight, we suggest you go to the airport and leave the country.’ It was made clear it would be in our best interests to do just that.
It wasn’t until we were on the plane and in international airspace that I felt we were safe and could relax.
My protest had been prompted, of course, by the fact that Qatar is staging the World Cup next month.
This tiny but oil-rich Gulf state is spending billions on a gigantic ‘sports-washing’ enterprise designed to expunge its grim record on human rights by presenting itself to the world as a modern city state dotted with glittering new stadiums and art galleries. It has attracted endorsements from celebrities such as David Beckham and Robbie Williams.
Exiled Qataris and oppressed minorities inside the country had asked me to help raise international awareness of Qatar’s abuse — not just of LGBT+ citizens, but of women and migrant workers, 6,500 of whom have died in the construction of sports venues, glitzy hotels and other architectural showpieces.
Tatchell (pictured in 2020, file photo) has a long history of campaigning on human rights issues, having begun his activism in 1967
This is Qatar’s dark side. It’s simply astonishing that David Beckham has made promotional videos describing Qatar as ‘perfection’ but hasn’t said a word about its human rights violations — presumably because he’s been paid a reputed £150 million to promote the country.
I’m equally angry with Robbie Williams. It’s appalling that the pop star has agreed to perform during the World Cup, giving credibility and kudos to the Qatari dictatorship.
Quite simply, it all comes down to greed: Beckham and Williams are willing to put money before principles and human rights. Both used to be icons and allies of the LGBT+ community, but not any more.
They are not alone: the supermodels Naomi Campbell and Bella Hadid attended a VIP opening of an exhibition at Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art only the other night. They, too, are guilty of collaborating with the Qatari government’s strategy of shifting the world’s focus away from human rights and on to sport and cultural entertainment.
Qatar’s ultimate aim is to rival Dubai as a centre of international trade and finance. It is using the biggest football tournament on the planet to help make that happen. The ‘World Cup boost’ is forecast to grow its economy by 3.4 per cent this year and next.
FIFA awarded the World Cup to Qatar in 2010 and it has since spent tens of billions of dollars on preparations ahead of the competition that kicks off on November 20
Meanwhile, LGBT+ people there can be subjected to police harassment on the street and in shopping malls for merely ‘looking’ gay. There are reports of LGBT+ people being entrapped by police using gay dating apps and being murdered in ‘honour’ killings by their families.
Both male and female homosexuality is punishable by up to three years in prison (and it is technically possible for Muslims to be given the death penalty by sharia courts). In addition, Qatar has secret ‘gay conversion’ centres where LGBT+ people can be detained and subjected to attempts to turn them straight (one of these institutions is near the stadium where the World Cup final will be played).
I knew one gay Qatari man who was put through these conversion programmes and found them so traumatic that he died by suicide.
And gay people are by no means the only victims of oppression. This is a country where women need permission from a male guardian to marry and get certain jobs.
It’s also difficult for a Qatari woman to divorce her husband — though he can very easily divorce her. And under Qatari law, the father always retains sole legal custody of the children, no matter how unfit a parent he might be.
Qatar’s emir (pictured right shaking hands with FIFA President Gianni Infantino) has raged against an ‘unprecedented campaign’ of criticism over preparations for this year’s football World Cup, saying no other host country has ever faced the same level of scrutiny
It was the idea that Qatar and its useful idiots might dupe the world about the true state of affairs in that country that persuaded me I must make a stand.
The entire operation was planned with military precision and even included some techniques I gleaned from spy novels.
I started by performing a dummy run last August. Back then, I took a flight to Australia via Doha to visit my mother Mardi on her 95th birthday. This allowed me to test whether my name raised a ‘red flag’ with Qatar immigration and security.
I got a day pass to go into Doha, the capital, then too, so I was able to look round the city centre and choose the best venue for my protest.
My mother died recently, so before this week’s flight — just in case I was being monitored — I wrote on social media that I was travelling back to Australia last Tuesday to deal with her affairs.
I also booked a flight for November 20, the date of the opening fixture of the World Cup, as a diversionary tactic.
Qatar outlaws sex outside marriage and homosexual sex, which can be punished by up to seven years in prison. Pictured: Workers walk along the marina near the Katara Towers in the Qatari coastal city of Lusail on October 23
As I had staged a protest against Russia’s human rights abuses outside the Kremlin on the first day of the World Cup in Moscow four years ago, I reckoned the Qatari authorities would assume that if I was going to protest, it would be then. By staging my protest last Tuesday, I calculated that I could take them by surprise.
Qatar has incredibly sophisticated surveillance technology so Simon Harris and I booked our flights separately and paid for our tickets from different accounts. I also took the precaution of having my phone ‘cleansed’ of all criticism of Qatar.
On the flight, Simon and I sat separately and did not exchange a word or a glance. Of the two of us, it appeared more likely that I would be searched because I had a higher protest profile, so Simon carried my placard hidden inside a copy of a broadsheet paper that was big enough to cover it.
Our flight passed without incident, but I walked up to the immigration desk at Doha airport with some trepidation. Brandishing a guide book, I explained I was a tourist, on my way to Australia from London, with a few hours’ stopover in Qatar between flights and I was keen to see the museums, art galleries and souq in the city centre.
Camel-mounted royal guards patrol outside the government palace in Doha on October 23. Qatari officials said no ‘conversion centres’ operate in the country, though it does have a rehabilitation clinic that supports individuals suffering from behavioural conditions such as substance dependence, eating disorders and mood disorders
The immigration officer fell for my ruse and gave me a day pass to leave the airport. If she had known what I was intending to do next, of course, I would have been arrested and deported on the spot.
I took the Metro into town while Simon took a taxi. We had agreed to rendezvous at the Desert Rose cafe, inside the National Museum.
Simon was already there by the time I arrived. After a few minutes, he got up to visit the Gents, leaving the newspaper on a table, a manoeuvre which had echoes of a spook’s ‘dead letter drop’.
I picked it up, pretended to catch up with the news, and then placed the newspaper with the placard in my rucksack.
When Simon walked outside I followed him at a distance, stopping to take selfies, so I continued to look like a tourist. Passing through a tunnel between buildings where there was no CCTV, he whispered when and where the protest should take place.
I was in constant fear of being intercepted by the security services and the protest being thwarted before it even started. I was also terrified of being brutalised if they arrested me. My stomach was churning with stress and even though it was a very hot day, my body temperature dropped. On the street, I soon got a sense of the fear that pervades the Gulf state.
Visitors take photos with a FIFA World Cup sign in Doha. HRW called on FIFA, football’s world body, to press Qatar to launch reforms that protect LGBT people
The moment I held up my placard, I could see people leaning out of their cars to read it: passers-by on the street stared at me in incredulity, shocked that anyone would do anything so rash.
One woman came up to me and said something along the lines of: ‘Put that placard away or you’ll end up in prison!’ She was really worried for me, because that is what happens to people who protest in Qatar — they end up behind bars.
I don’t suppose I will be allowed back into Qatar, but there is much that other people can do. Only this week, the Australian football team, the ‘Socceroos’, released a powerful video message, urging Qatar to address the issue of human rights.
I’d like to see the England team do the same. So far, they have agreed only to wear the ‘OneLove’ armband: a feeble gesture. Most fans won’t know what it means and it certainly doesn’t explicitly signify LGBT+ rights. I would appeal to England’s captain, Harry Kane — and all the other team captains — to devote 30 seconds of their post-match press conferences at the World Cup to highlight human rights abuses.
That would have a massive impact. Their statements would be viewed by hundreds of millions of fans around the world — and that’s going to be far more effective than wearing rainbow laces.
It is outrageous that James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, this week called on British LGBT+ fans to ‘respect’ the host nation’s values when they go to Qatar.
Why should LGBT+ fans compromise their sexuality to appease a tyranny? This regime is sexist, homophobic and racist. It does not deserve respect.
What’s even more shocking is that in his public statement the Foreign Secretary did not utter a word of criticism of the Qatari government. He demands compromise from the victims of discrimination, while letting this despotic regime off the hook.
When Fifa, football’s international governing body, granted Qatar the World Cup, its government promised reform. But almost nothing has been forthcoming. After initially promising that the LGBT+ rainbow flag could be displayed in the stadiums, it withdrew that permission. Qatar simply cannot be trusted. My only comfort is the level of opprobrium that is being heaped on this desert kingdom as a result of it putting itself under the spotlight globally by hosting this giant sports event.
With so many people already condemning its human rights abuses, Qatar’s decision to stage the World Cup is looking more and more like an own goal.
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