The Government wielded power in the worst way possible to out Brexit whistleblower Shahmir Sanni

It is completely unacceptable for the Government to out anybody, in any context

Douglas Robertson
Sunday 25 March 2018 17:13
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Vote Leave campaign group 'cheated' to bend referendum spending rules, whistleblower Shahmir Sanni claims

Over the past couple of days, the Brexit storm has turned even uglier. At its centre stands Shahmir Sanni, the young Vote Leave volunteer turned whistleblower, who became the target of a public “outing” by a Government adviser.

The allegations made by Sanni against the Leave campaign relate in part to political secretary Stephen Parkinson, a Vote Leave chief who now advises Theresa May. Parkinson, in a statement released initially on a blog – owned by Brexit mastermind Dominic Cummings – proceeded to out Sanni as a gay man, without his consent. Parkinson referred to their “personal relationship”, and the fact that they dated for 18 months, and this statement was subsequently distributed by the official No 10 Press office.

Following the release of Parkinson’s statement, a law firm acting on behalf of Sanni, Bindmans LLP, released a statement of condemnation, saying that they believed it to be the first time a Downing Street official statement has been used to out someone.

In the statement, Sanni’s lawyer explains: “My client is now having to come out to his mother and family tonight, and members of his family in Pakistan are being forced to take urgent protective measures to ensure their safety.”

Parkinson’s original statement was then rather begrudgingly taken down from the blog, although Cummings was at pains to lay the blame firmly at the feet of The Observer and Channel 4, who first reported Sanni’s allegations. Then, to make matters worse, Parkinson released a further statement in which he claimed that his “outing” of Sanni was unavoidable – in fact, he suggests that it was Sanni’s fault. “I cannot see how our relationship, which was ongoing at the time of the referendum and which is a material fact in the allegations being made, could have remained private once Shahmir decided to publicise his false claims in this way.”

As I watched this unfold yesterday, agog, the story playing out had an almost surreal quality. A senior figure in Government, evidently with the backing of the Downing Street press office machine, had just outed a gay man. Then, when confronted with the suggestion that this could quite literally put people’s lives in danger, this same senior figure shrugged off any responsibility, showed no contrition or compassion, claiming that he had had no other choice.

There are undoubtedly many people who have a far deeper understanding than I of the arguments and evidence that has been put forward by Sanni and tireless journalists such as Carole Cadwalladr. Regardless, however grave the accusations and however profound their implications for the Vote Leave establishment, our Government and its representatives do not have the right to put the lives of British citizens and their families at risk; nor do they have the right to violate their privacy. The fact that the citizen in question is a whistleblower at the centre of the Vote Leave campaign – a campaign involving high profile figures at the centre of Government – does lead me towards some quite grim speculation about their motives.

It is completely unacceptable for the Government to out anybody, in any context. Coming out is a personal decision, and taking that decision away from someone constitutes a violation of their right to privacy and can be dangerous for any number of reasons. It has been suggested by some that this particular outing constitutes a violation of his rights under Article 8 of the European Court of Human Rights: “Right to respect for private and family life”.

There are times in my life where, had I been “outed” as Mr Sanni has been, I’m quite sure it would have had a severe impact on my mental health and my family relationships.

For Sanni and his family, the revelation of his sexuality could quite possibly be a matter of life and death. In Pakistan, having a member of the family who is LGBT can be a matter of considerable “shame”, with concerns about what others will think and how they will act as a result. Families often force their relatives to marry people of the opposite gender, with the alternative often being total disownment. Lesbians are frequently the victims of so-called “honour killings”. Many people choose to stay closeted, while others take the risk of marrying someone of the opposite gender and living as LGBT in secret.

A report by the Home Office in 2016 outlines the various risks posed to LGBT individuals in Pakistan, stating that “young men or boys that identify as gay typically face expulsion from the family home if they do not relinquish their sexual orientation.” Gang violence, rape and blackmail are also common. So, our government knows about these risks – they publish papers on them – and the risk to families tainted by extension cannot be underestimated.

I cannot be alone in being deeply angry at the actions of Stephen Parkinson and our Government over the past couple of days. The idea that a public outing was unavoidable is ludicrous, and the decision by Parkinson and the Number 10 press office to stoop this low feels profoundly cynical and quite possibly puts lives in danger. It is our duty to speak out on behalf of that citizen in solidarity, so Shahmir, today I am speaking out. I am with you.

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