Qatar says airport officials responsible for ‘invasive’ strip searches of female passengers face prosecution

Mayank Aggarwal
·2-min read
Revelations that passengers flying through Doha were forced to endure vaginal inspections have upended Qatar's efforts to boost its reputation before the Gulf state hosts World Cup 2022, experts say. Officers marched women off a Sydney-bound Qatar Airways flight earlier this month and forced them to undergo intimate examinations after a newborn baby was found abandoned in an airport bathroom. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR / AFP) (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)
Revelations that passengers flying through Doha were forced to endure vaginal inspections have upended Qatar's efforts to boost its reputation before the Gulf state hosts World Cup 2022, experts say. Officers marched women off a Sydney-bound Qatar Airways flight earlier this month and forced them to undergo intimate examinations after a newborn baby was found abandoned in an airport bathroom. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR / AFP) (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

Qatar’s government has said those responsible for carrying out intimate and invasive medical examinations of a number of women at Doha airport have been referred to prosecutors for possible charges.

Women on 10 flights – including at least 18 bound for Australia – were searched after a newborn baby was earlier found dumped in the terminal.

The women were from Australia, New Zealand, the UK and France.

A statement was issued by Qatar’s government communications office amid continuing outrage following the 2 October incident, which has spiralled into a public relations catastrophe for the Gulf state that will host the 2022 football World Cup, with Australia and New Zealand expressing their anger over what happened.

In the statement, Qatar described the abandoning of the baby as "attempted murder".

"The subsequent procedures taken by the authorities at the airport, including examining a number of female passengers, revealed that standard procedures were violated," the statement said. "Those responsible for these violations and illegal actions have been referred to the Public Prosecution Office."

It added that an investigation by Qatari authorities was continuing and that Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al Thani, the country's prime minister and interior minister, offered his country's "sincerest apology" to the women forced to undergo the exams.

"What took place is wholly inconsistent with Qatar’s culture and values," the statement said.

“Qatar is fully committed to the safety and security of all travelers.”

It is not clear how many people could be prosecuted, nor how senior they might be.

The physical examinations of passengers bound for Sydney and nine other unnamed destinations triggered outrage when it was first reported in Australia, where the government denounced the searches as inappropriate and beyond circumstances in which the women could give free and informed consent. 

Rights activists say such exams conducted under duress amount to sexual assault.

This image made from Oct. 2, 2020 surveillance camera footage obtained by the website Doha News shows officials care for an abandoned baby at Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar. Qatar apologized Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, after authorities forcibly examined female passengers from a Qatar Airways flight to Sydney to try to identify who might have given birth to the abandoned newborn baby, even as Australia said it was only one of 10 flights subjected to the searches. (Doha News via AP)AP
This image made from Oct. 2, 2020 surveillance camera footage obtained by the website Doha News shows officials care for an abandoned baby at Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar. Qatar apologized Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, after authorities forcibly examined female passengers from a Qatar Airways flight to Sydney to try to identify who might have given birth to the abandoned newborn baby, even as Australia said it was only one of 10 flights subjected to the searches. (Doha News via AP)AP

In a statement on Thursday, New Zealand’s foreign ministry said the action was "completely unacceptable".

“We were extremely concerned to learn... that a New Zealand national was involved in the appalling incident involving female passengers on several Qatar Airways flights,” it said.

As the reports came to light this week, the government of Qatar apologised and promised a full investigation to be shared internationally. It earlier called the discovery of the newborn buried in a plastic bag under trash "an egregious and life-threatening" act.

In Qatar, like much of the Middle East, sex and childbirth outside of marriage are criminalised. Migrant workers in the past have hidden pregnancies and tried to travel abroad to give birth, and others have abandoned their babies anonymously to avoid imprisonment.

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