The state of Qatar has finally apologised for any “distress or infringement” felt by women forced to undergo a genital examination at Doha’s Hamad Airport.
However, the statement comes three days after the story was revealed publicly and almost one month after the incident itself occurred on 2 October.
Earlier this week, it emerged that 13 Australian women on board Qatar Airways flight QR908 from Doha to Sydney were asked to leave the plane to be escorted to ambulances for the invasive check, apparently carried out because staff found a premature baby abandoned in a bathroom.
On Wednesday, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, said that women from as many as 10 different aircraft were checked, and five women from other nationalities were also asked to leave the plane – though it’s not clear if all were invasively searched.
The Qatari government said in a statement the baby was rescued from “what appeared to be a shocking and appalling attempt to kill her”.
“This was the first instance of an abandoned infant being discovered in such a condition at HIA [Hamad Airport] – 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,” read the statement.
“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 traveller 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.”
The state of Qatar effectively owns both Hamad Airport and the flag carrier, Qatar Airways. Before the statement, Minister Payne reiterated that she thought the treatment was “offensive” and “grossly inappropriate” to a parliamentary hearing.
She said the Qatari government had planned to hand her a report on the incident “very soon”, while Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson added the Qatari government’s reaction “matches our own in terms of level of distress and abhorrence and a deep questioning of how this can have happened”.
On Monday, one of the Australian women searched spoke anonymously to the ABC and said authorities locked the ambulance door before telling her to undress.
“When I got in there, and there was a lady with a mask on and then the authorities closed the ambulance behind me and locked it,” she said. “They never explained anything.
“She told me to pull my pants down and that I needed to examine my vagina. I said ‘I’m not doing that’ and she did not explain anything to me. She just kept saying, ‘We need to see it, we need to see it’.”
The woman continued that she was eventually let out of the ambulance and ran over to the other girls but added there was “nowhere for me to run”. She eventually removed her clothes and was inspected, and touched, by a female nurse.
“Everyone had gone white and was shaking. I was very scared at that point, I didn’t know what the possibilities were.”
In June, Australian Aviation reported how Qatar Airways’ share of passengers travelling to and from Australia leapt from just 3 per cent to 44.5 per cent in April.
The jump meant the carrier, owned by the namesake state, was by far the biggest in terms of passengers carried – with previous number one Qantas slumping from 17.9 per cent to just 2.9 per cent.
Qantas is no longer flying commercial international flights other than specific government-supplemented flights, meaning many Australians attempting to return home will have little option but to fly with Qatar Airways and travel through Hamad.
The airline, which is owned by the state of Qatar, has made much of its decision to keep flying during the pandemic, launching a huge PR offensive using the slogan ‘Taking You Home’.