The government of Qatar on Wednesday expressed “regrets,” but defended a decision to pull more than a dozen women from a Qatar Airways flight in Doha and subject them to invasive medical exams after an abandoned newborn was found in an airport bathroom.
Women passengers bound for Australia said that they were strip-searched and given physical exams by Qatari officials at an airport in Doha earlier this month. The Australian government now says that women on a total of 10 flights were subjected to such exams.
Rights activists and others have said the exams could be considered sexual assault. The director of Amnesty International Australia, Samantha Klintworth, described them as “a gross breach of these women’s rights.”
But the government of Qatar said its officials acted because a newborn girl had been found buried under trash, but alive, at Hamad International Airport. Qatar called it an “egregious and life-threatening violation of the law,” and said officials at this airport had never dealt with such a situation before.
“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,” the government said in a statement.
Women reported the Oct. 2 strip-searches to the Australian authorities after landing in Sydney, but few people knew about them until Sunday, when news outlets reported that female passengers had been subjected to the searches in the Qatari capital.
Some were made to take off their underwear and submit to an invasive exam to see if they had recently given birth, an Australian nurse told The New York Times. Older women had their bellies pressed.
The case has prompted shock and outrage in Australia and other countries.
Aisha Al-Qahtani, an artist and activist from Qatar now living in London, wrote on Twitter, “An absolutely shameful event which happened due to the lack of judgment and lack of basic civil decency on behalf of a misogynistic and backward power figure.”
On Wednesday, Scott Morrison, the prime minister of Australia, denounced the Qatari officials’ actions as “appalling,” and said, “As a father of daughters, I could only shudder at the thought that any woman, Australian or otherwise, would be subjected to that.”
Australia’s federal police are investigating.
A 31-year-old nurse, who had been on the flight and asked to be identified only by her first name, Jessica, because of the personal nature of the incident, said that she and the other women who had been strip-searched felt relieved that the Qatari government had finally recognized their traumatic experience.
“We’re all struggling with what happened,” she said on Wednesday, adding, “At this stage, we are still looking to take it further.”
She said the women, who had formed a WhatsApp group to share information and support, were also concerned for the welfare of the infant’s mother.
Information about the infant’s parents remains unavailable.
The statement by the Qatari government revealed new details about the episode.
It said the newborn had been found in a trash can, “concealed in a plastic bag and buried under garbage.” It said the baby had been rescued from “what appeared to be a shocking and appalling attempt to kill her.”
The newborn was alive and “safe under medical care in Doha,” the government added.
Qatar’s prime minister has directed that “a comprehensive, transparent investigation into the incident be conducted,” the statement said. “The results of the investigation will be shared with our international partners.”
Asked whether women passengers on ten flights had been subjected to exams, the Qatari foreign ministry did not immediately respond.
Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, told a Senate committee hearing on Wednesday that 18 Australian women on Flight QR908 had been subjected to the invasive searches. She also said that the plane had been one of 10 flights where female passengers were given the exams and that women from other countries had also been searched.
Earlier, she called the searches “a grossly, grossly disturbing, offensive, concerning set of events. It is not something I have ever heard of occurring in my life in any context.”
Kim Mills, a passenger in her 60s, told The Guardian that she had been the “luckiest one” among the women taken off the Qatar Airways flight because of her age. She recalled seeing a younger woman coming out of an ambulance “crying and distraught.”
The episode has highlighted the treatment of women in Qatar, where sex, pregnancy and childbirth outside of marriage are criminalized. Women accused of such crimes, even if their pregnancy resulted from rape, could face arrest or imprisonment.
The episode also raised questions about whether foreign women traveling through the airport in Qatar could legally be subject to invasive and potentially nonconsensual procedures, experts said. In 2016, a Dutch woman who had reported being drugged and raped was convicted of adultery and handed a suspended sentence, along with fines.
“I don’t know of any law in Qatar that obligates the authorities to conduct forced gynecological exams,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch, based in London. “Any woman of childbearing age became a suspect. This was not treated as a public health matter, but as a criminal matter. And even in criminal cases, there’s due process.”
The Transport Workers’ Union of New South Wales in Australia has said that the airport episode was so “grossly disturbing” that its members who work at the Sydney airport were considering stopping servicing, cleaning or refueling Qatar Airways aircraft.
“What these women were forced to go through at the hands of Qatari authorities must be labeled for what it is, sexual assault,” Richard Olsen, the union’s New South Wales secretary, said in a statement. “These women had no choice, they had no guidance as to what was happening, and they did not consent.”
Trade between Qatar and Australia was worth more than $1.5 billion last year, making the country Australia’s second-largest two-way trading partner in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Aviation services are one of Qatar’s main exports to Australia.
Hamad International Airport is Qatar Airways’ hub, one of the largest airports in the Middle East and a major transit point for international flights. It is scheduled to undergo a major expansion before Qatar hosts the 2022 World Cup.
As of Wednesday morning, Qatar Airways had not made any public statements about the strip-searches.
Australia’s limits on the number of citizens who can return home during the pandemic have left thousands of them stranded around the world. Business- and first-class seats tend to be prioritized, meaning that only some can afford to go home.
Brendan Sobie, an aviation analyst in Singapore, said that Qatar Airways carried nearly 30 percent of international passengers to and from Australia from April to September, up from slightly more than 3 percent before the pandemic. It recently added Brisbane to its list of Australia destinations, he added, and is now one of only two foreign airlines operating flights to all five of the country’s major cities.
“Qatar Airways was trying to use the crisis as an opportunity to strengthen its long-term position in Australia, where prior to Covid it was struggling to secure more traffic rights,” Mr. Sobie said.
The strip-searches, he added, could become a major commercial setback for the company in Australia and beyond.
Damien Cave, Yan Zhuang and Nada Rashwan contributed reporting.