Qatar expresses ‘regret’ after 18 women strip-searched at Doha airport

Government says search was triggered by discovery of baby in rubbish bin

The government of Qatar has said it "regrets any distress or infringement on the personal freedom of any traveller" caused by a decision to conduct intimate medical examinations of women transiting through Doha international airport, in what it said was an "urgently-decided search" to find the mother of an abandoned baby.

On Wednesday morning the Australian government confirmed that 18 women on a flight from Doha to Sydney were subjected to the compulsory medical examination, including 13 Australian citizens. Passengers from 10 flights leaving Doha on the evening of October 2nd were affected.

Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, said the invasive treatment of the women was “unacceptable” and “appalling” and his government would “continue to take a very strident approach” in seeking answers and ensuring it would never be repeated.

The Qatari government broke its silence on Wednesday, three days after the incident became global news. It said the search was triggered by the discovery of a baby in a trash can at Hamad international airport (HIA), “concealed in a plastic bag and buried under garbage”.

“The baby girl was rescued from what appeared to be a shocking and appalling attempt to kill her,” the statement said. “The infant is now safe under medical care in Doha.

“This was the first instance of an abandoned infant being discovered in such a condition at HIA - this egregious and life-threatening violation of the law triggered an immediate search for the parents, including on flights in the vicinity of where the newborn was found. While the aim of the urgently-decided search was to prevent the perpetrators of the horrible crime from escaping, the State of Qatar regrets any distress or infringement on the personal freedoms of any traveler caused by this action.

“His Excellency Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al Thani the Prime Minister and Minister of Interior of the State of Qatar has directed that a comprehensive, transparent investigation into the incident be conducted. The results of the investigation will be shared with our international partners. The State of Qatar remains committed to ensuring the safety, security and comfort of all travelers transiting through the country.”

Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday travellers were entitled to travel "free of those types of incidents" and Australia expected to see the results of the investigation very soon.

“As a father of daughters, I could only shudder at the thought that any woman, Australian or otherwise, would be subjected to that,” the prime minister said.

Mr Morrison said he was determined to ensure there was no repeat of the incident, noting Qatar Airways was currently performing an important role in carrying about 15 per cent of the Australians returning home after being stranded during the pandemic.

Asked whether Australia would seek an unqualified apology from the Qatari government, or compensation for the women, Mr Morrison said the government would consider all options once it had the opportunity to review the investigation.

“There is no doubt in the mind of whether it’s Qatari airlines or the government, about Australia’s strong objections and views about this and I think those views are shared, widely, so we will make a further response, not our first response, a further response, once we have the opportunity to see the results of that investigation.”

Eighteen women were on the Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Sydney which has been highlighted in media reports this week.

The Australian foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, would not name the other countries whose citizens were affected, but Agence France-Presse reported that one French woman was on the flight.

Ms Payne told a Senate estimates hearing on Wednesday that 10 flights leaving Hamad international airport in Doha had been caught up in the search.

Ms Payne said the department of foreign affairs and trade had not become aware of the number of other flights affected until Tuesday.

“The issues which have been discussed in relation to this matter are very concerning and very distressing and the Australian government has been quite clear about that,” Ms Payne said. “There is a series of meetings occurring in Qatar as late as yesterday. Australia is not the only country affected.”

Those meetings involved the airport, Qatar Airways and the government of Qatar, Ms Payne said.

The incident was reported to Australian authorities by women on the flight upon their arrival in Sydney on October 3rd. Some passengers made a report to the Australian federal police at the airport, and one woman on the flight, a department of foreign affairs employee, emailed the department that night.

The woman was not travelling on official business.

The incident was then immediately flagged with the Australian consulate in Doha.

Qatar’s record on women’s rights has in the past been criticised by human rights groups. Among points of discrimination highlighted by Human Rights Watch are a penal code that “does not criminalise domestic violence or marital rape” and a personal status law that says a “wife is responsible for looking after the household and obeying her husband”.–Guardian