An 18-year-old Saudi woman says she has been detained at Thailand’s main international airport at the behest of Saudi authorities who want to stop her from fleeing to Australia.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun began tweeting about her ordeal from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport in the early hours of Sunday, Jan. 6.
She said her passport was confiscated at the airport even though she possessed the necessary travel documents to travel on to Australia.
In another tweet, published just before 3:30 a.m. Monday morning Bangkok time, Rahaf said Saudi embassy officials threatened to “kidnap” her if she didn’t get on the flight to Kuwait.
She later said she was going to be put on Kuwait Airlines flight 412, which was scheduled to depart Bangkok at 11:15 a.m. local time, to Kuwait en route to Saudi Arabia.
However, the flight later departed without Rahaf on board, according to ABC correspondent Sophie McNeill.
Saudi embassy officials previously told her she was going to be put on a plane to Kuwait, Rahaf told Global News, even though she doesn’t want to return, fearful of retribution by her family.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has backed up Rahaf’s story.
The NGO’s deputy director for the Asia region, Phil Robertson, confirmed to Global News that he was in contact with Rahaf and believed her story is credible.
Speaking to Global News via text from an airport hotel room where she said she was being held, Rahaf said she fled the Middle East to get away from her abusive Saudi family.
She said she was subjected to beatings by male relatives, who at one point kept her locked up in her bedroom for six months because she cut her hair.
Australia was her chosen destination because it was possible for her to procure a visa online — “Because I wasn’t able to go anywhere alone,” she said in reference to Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws, which limit women’s movements and freedom to travel.
She said she escaped by boarding a flight from Kuwait while there with her family.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, Kuwait doesn’t require a male guardian to sign off on women traveling from the country.
Rahaf said she was pleading for protection not only from Australia but also from Canada, the U.S. or the United Kingdom, if they were willing to take her.
Rahaf says her decision to flee Saudi Arabia, and the subsequent social media stir caused by her detention, makes it all the more dangerous for her to return.
“I’m 100 per cent sure they will KILL me,” she told Global News in a Twitter message, saying her family had threatened her after she renounced Islam.
She said she believed she was hours away from being forced on a flight back to Kuwait.
Her father and other family members told Saudi authorities she was mentally ill in a bid to have her returned, she added.
Thai authorities have denied Rahaf access to the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees to make a refugee claim, Human Rights Watch said in a press release.
Thailand is obliged under international law to ensure that she isn’t forcibly sent to a place where she could be at risk of torture and other human rights violations, the NGO said.
“Saudi women fleeing their families can face severe violence from relatives, deprivation of liberty, and other serious harm if returned against their will,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“Thai authorities should immediately halt any deportation, and either allow her to continue her travel to Australia or permit her to remain in Thailand to seek protection as a refugee.”
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Human Rights Watch cited several previous cases of Saudi women trying to flee their families only to face being forcibly returned.
One of them, Dina Lasloom, was also stopped en route to Australia in 2017, and forced to return to Saudi Arabia. She hasn’t been publicly heard from since.
Robertson said Thai authorities were spreading fake stories about Rahaf, citing one Thai immigration official’s remark to CNN in which he said Rahaf was denied entry into Thailand because she didn’t have the requisite documents.
“She was transiting
#Bangkok on her way to Australia and never intended to enter Thailand. This looks like Thai & #SaudiArabia playing games to me,” Robertson said in a tweet.
Robertson said Thai lawyers filed an injunction with a Bangkok criminal court to prevent Rahaf’s deportation, and urged the court to consider it quickly because “time is short and she faces dire peril if sent back from Thailand.”
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“Once again we are seeing the abusive influence of Saudi authorities abroad as they seek to forcibly return Saudi women fleeing mistreatment and violence by their families,” said Page.
“Apparently, Saudi authorities not only want to perpetuate systematic discrimination of women at home and prevent Saudi women from freely travelling abroad, but also ensure that those who manage to escape are forced back to a life of abuse.”
Human Rights Watch said Rahaf faces possible criminal charges in Saudi Arabia for “parental disobedience” and for “harming the reputation of the kingdom” with her public appeals for help.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry denied orchestrating her detention at Bangkok airport or seizing her passport.
In a statement, the ministry said Rahaf was being deported because she lacked a return ticket or a tourist itinerary in Thailand. It didn’t address Rahaf’s stated claims of trying to travel to Australia.
The Saudi ambassador to Thailand also denied Rahaf’s claims and Human Rights Watch’s reporting.
Abdul-Ilah al-Shuaibi told Saudi state-aligned news outlet Sabq that Rahaf had been arrested by Thai authorities for violating laws there.
As was the case with the ministry statement, al-Shuaibi’s remarks didn’t address her explanation of lacking a return ticket or tourist program because she intended to travel on to Australia.
Al-Shuaibi said Rahaf had five or six sisters, and that it was “impossible” that only one of them would be abused to the point of fleeing.
Sabq also reported that social media and news reporting on Rahaf’s case was full of “exaggeration and injustice.”