~ This story contains references to suicide and transphobic violence. If you or a loved one are in need of support for suicidal thoughts or ideation, you can contact a crisis responder at 988 (for U.S. calls), 1-883-456-4566 (for Canadian calls), Trans Lifeline, the Crisis Text Line, or the Trevor Project.
A spokesperson for the State Department confirmed to VICE News on Thursday that the U.S. government will investigate the passing of Eden Knight, a 23-year old transgender woman from Saudi Arabia who died by suicide on March 12, 2023. In a final letter posted to Twitter preceding her death, Ms. Knight alleged that while living as an undocumented immigrant in the United States after college, her parents contracted an American cybersecurity firm and team of legal “fixers” with connections to the Saudi Embassy to manipulate her to return to Saudi Arabia and forcibly terminate her gender transition.
Close contacts of Knight have independently corroborated her account to VICE News, Rolling Stone, and The Independent, including the identities of alleged co-conspirators CEO Michael Pocalyko and Ellen Cole of the D.C.-based cyberintelligence firm and federal government contractor Special Investigations, Bader Alomair, a lawyer of the Saudi Embassy in Washington D.C., and Knight’s father Fahad Al-Shathri, the Deputy Governor for Supervision at the Saudi Central Bank. News of Knight’s suicide quickly spread from her circle of close friends to the wider LGBTQ+ community online, demanding justice and accountability from the high-profile government and business moguls implicated in claims surrounding her death (none of whom have responded to journalists’ requests for comment).
Described by her friends in a public statement as “funny, sharp, well-read, and concerned with making the world a better place,” Knight was living in Georgia when she was initially contacted by Pocalyko in August 2022, a self described “fixer” who offered to assist her with her asylum process and help repair her fractured relationship with her “strict conservative” parents. Over time, Pocalyko and his associate Cole encouraged Knight to travel to D.C. to connect with a Saudi lawyer, identified in her letter as “Bader” and suspected by multiple accounts to be Bader Alomair. A 2021 Washington Post article recently identified Alomair as “the working-level point man in the Washington embassy” for Saudi students in need of legal representation, noting his controversial involvement in prior cases where Saudi nationals facing criminal charges were quietly transported from the United States to circumvent legal proceedings.
Knight’s letter describes how Pocalyko and Cole cut off contact after putting her under the supervision of “Bader,” who took advantage of her vulnerability as an undocumented migrant by coercing her to stop taking hormones and move back to Saudi Arabia. When she returned to Saudi Arabia, Knight was informed by her parents that these “fixers” were hired to orchestrate her displacement from the U.S., and soon cut off her access to her personal finances, passport, and hormone therapy, significantly threatening her mental health. After posting her suicide note, the Al-Shathri family confirmed Knight’s death in a social media post (using an incorrect name and pronouns) on the morning of March 13, 2023.
“I feel disgusted by the magnitude of their betrayal,” wrote Knight’s friend Bailee in a personal statement, who claims to have overseen the alleged communications with Pocalyko and Cole while living with Knight. Another close friend, Ashley Biddiscombe, later told Rolling Stone she felt that Knight had been “essentially lured out” of Bailee’s home by Pocalyko, Cole and “Bader” under false pretenses.
Knight’s tragic passing highlights the toll of structural violence and the need for comprehensive, regulated asylum processes for transgender women of color internationally, and echoes a growing concern for Saudi dissidents seeking political asylum in the United States. Notably, Knight ran a popular public Twitter account where, according to friends, she “stood up for marginalized people and regularly critiqued the conservative, suffocating culture she had left back home.” Since the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, reports from NPR and The Financial Times have observed a rise in Saudia Arabia’s crackdown on speech of this nature under Mohammed Bin Salman, citing instances of increased surveillance and sanctions against Saudis on U.S. soil for critical social media posts. Though research on Knight’s case has not confirmed her social media presence as an inciting factor behind her removal from the U.S., subsequent investigations taken up by the State Department should examine these connections, along with the role of the Special Investigation firm, Pocalyko, and Cole in reportedly colluding with Saudi diplomats over her capture.
Eden Knight will be remembered by her community as a fearless advocate for transgender liberation. Her name should not be forgotten in the global struggle for LGBTQ+ rights, and any pending investigation into her case should seek to understand and fully remedy the failure of the U.S. legal and immigration systems to provide for her safety. “[Eden] would still be here if her family just let her live how she wanted to,” said Merrick Deville, a friend of Knight, to The Independent. “I am tired of watching my friends suffering and dying. This community just wants to live their lives and be themselves.”
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