A Saudi woman being held at Bangkok airport is to be sent back, Thai authorities said Monday, after she made a desperate plea for asylum, saying she feared for her life after escaping an abusive family.
The incident comes against the backdrop of intense scrutiny of Saudi Arabia over its investigation and handling of the shocking murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year, which has renewed criticism of the kingdom’s rights record.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun told AFP she ran away from her family while travelling in Kuwait because they subjected her to physical and psychological abuse.
The 18-year-old said she had planned to travel to Australia and seek asylum there, and feared she would be killed if she was repatriated by Thai immigration officials who stopped her during transit on Sunday.
Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn had said Qunun was waiting, with local and Saudi embassy officials on hand, to board a flight to Saudi Arabia, traveling via Kuwait.
“She bought the ticket herself yesterday,” he added.
Asked if she was seeking asylum, he said “we do not know but if anyone wants to seek asylum, they have to wait for those countries to reply”.
The Kuwait Airways flight departed Bangkok as scheduled, but Qunun was not on board, according to Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch.
Qunun said she was stopped by Saudi and Kuwaiti officials when she arrived at the Thai capital’s Suvarnabhumi airport and her travel document was forcibly taken from her, a claim backed by HRW.
Abdulilah al-Shouaibi, charge d’affaires at the Saudi embassy in Bangkok, acknowledged in an interview with Saudi-owned channel Rotana Khalijial that the woman’s father had contacted the diplomatic mission for “help” to bring her back.
But he denied that her passport had been seized and that embassy officials were present inside the airport.
Barricaded in room
In a sign of growing desperation during the night, Qunun posted video of her barricading her hotel room door with furniture.
If sent back, she said she will likely be imprisoned, and is “sure 100 percent” her family will kill her, she told AFP.
Immigration chief Surachate said Sunday that Qunun was denied entry because she lacked “further documents such as return ticket or money”, and Thailand had contacted the “Saudi Arabia embassy to coordinate”.
Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement on Twitter from its Bangkok embassy, disputing her account.
“Her passport was not impounded by the Saudi embassy”, it said, adding that she was stopped by Thai authorities for “violating the law”.
“She will be deported to the State of Kuwait where her family” lives, it added. Qunun, however, told AFP that she was only traveling in the Gulf state.
HRW’s Robertson said she “faces grave harm if she is forced back to Saudi Arabia”, and that Thailand should allow her to see the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and apply for asylum.
“Given Saudi Arabia’s long track record of looking the other way in so-called honour violence incidents, her worry that she could be killed if returned cannot be ignored,” he said.
“She has clearly stated that she has renounced Islam which also puts her at serious risk of prosecution by the Saudi Arabian government.”
The concern was echoed by Georg Schmidt, the German ambassador in Thailand.
“We are very concerned about Rahaf Mohammed and we are in contact with the Thai authorities and the embassies of the countries she has approached,” he said on his verified Twitter account.
The UNHCR said that according to the principle of non-refoulement, asylum seekers cannot be returned to their country of origin if their life is under threat, and that it has been trying to seek access to Qunun.
The ultra-conservative Saudi kingdom has long been criticised for imposing some of the world’s toughest restrictions on women.
That includes a guardianship system that allows men to exercise arbitrary authority to make decisions on behalf of their female relatives.
In addition to facing punishment for “moral” crimes, women can also become the target of “honour killings” at the hands of their families, activists say.
Saudi Arabia has come under fierce criticism following the murder of dissident journalist Khashoggi inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate on October 2 — a case that stunned the world.
Another Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, was stopped in transit in the Philippines in April 2017 when she attempted to flee her family.