Australia's highest court on Tuesday ordered immigration officials to reconsider asylum claims from two Bangladeshi men who fled their homeland saying they were being persecuted there because they are a gay couple. The men's lawyer, Bruce Levet, said the case had set a legal precedent by recognizing that prejudice against homosexuality could be the basis for a refugee claim. "I think it will have a significant impact, not only in Australia but internationally, because our jurisprudence is something that's looked to by courts of other refugee receiving states," he said. Refugee status is normally granted on grounds of political persecution.
The men, who had lived together in Bangladesh since 1994, fled to Australia in 1999 and applied for protection as refugees from gay persecution. Their names have not been released. When Australia's Refugee Review Tribunal rejected their application, the men appealed to the Federal Court of Australia, which in February 2002 upheld the tribunal's ruling. On Tuesday, the High Court, Australia's final court of appeal, ruled by a 4-3 majority that the refugee tribunal should have considered what might happen to the men if they lived openly as a gay couple in Bangladesh. The court said the tribunal must look again at the men's case and consider whether they would suffer harm from police, their employers, or others if their homosexuality was made public.
Levet told the High Court earlier this year that after being exposed as a gay couple in Bangladesh his clients had been ostracized by their families and community and were stoned and whipped. Their local Islamic council issued a fatwah, or death sentence, against them, Levet claimed. The refugee tribunal earlier ruled that the men had conducted themselves discreetly in the past and rejected their claims that they had suffered and would continue to suffer serious harm if they were returned to Bangladesh. It was not immediately known when the tribunal would reassess the men's claim.