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Qatar charges police over invasive search of women at Hamad

written by Adam Thorn | November 24, 2020
Qatar Airways flight QR914 touches down in Adelaide. (Seth Jaworski)
Qatar Airways flight QR914 touches down in Adelaide. (Seth Jaworski)

Qatar’s prosecutor has filed criminal charges against police officers working at Hamad Airport for their role in the invasive search of 18 women.

Authorities now say the defendants face “penalties of a maximum of three years” for instructing medical staff to force genital examinations on the passengers, of which 13 are Australian.

Qatar also claims to have charged the mother of the abandoned baby, who sparked the search, with attempted murder and launched legal proceedings to arrest her.

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The news comes weeks after the Qatari government said they would refer “those responsible” to the prosecution office in a major hardening of its position. Previously, authorities faced criticism for taking almost a month to publicly apologise for the incident and seemingly attempting to shift the narrative to the premature baby.

On Monday evening local time, Qatar said an unnamed number of police officers working in the Airport Security Department broke the law, however, declined to say what crimes were allegedly committed or how many would face trial.

It claimed a male defendant has been identified as the father and received a text from the mother telling him that she had given birth but was now fleeing the country. It’s not clear what charges the father faces.

In total, 13 Australian women on board Qatar Airways flight QR908 from Doha to Sydney were asked to leave the plane on 2 October to be escorted to ambulances for the invasive check, supposedly carried out as staff tried to find the baby’s mother.

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Foreign Minister Marise Payne then confirmed women from as many as 10 different aircraft were checked, and five women from other nationalities, including the UK and France, were also asked to leave the plane.

After initially keeping quiet about the incident, Qatari authorities eventually hardened their stance and said a preliminary investigation concluded “standard procedures were violated”.

A statement read, “His Excellency the Prime Minister and Minister of Interior expressed the Government of the State of Qatar’s sincerest apology for what some female travellers went through as a result of the measures.

“This incident is the first of its kind at HIA, which has served tens of millions of passengers without any issues like this before. What took place is wholly inconsistent with Qatar’s culture and values. Qatar is fully committed to the safety and security of all travellers arriving to or transiting through HIA.”

Qatar’s prime minister then tweeted that the actions “do not represent Qatar’s laws or values”.

Minister Payne later said, “We very much welcome the acknowledgement by the government of Qatar in relation to the events that occurred in Hamad Airport recently. We welcome the investigative process they have undertaken.”

Previously, the Qatar government faced criticism after its first statement only apologised for the “distress or infringement” felt by female passengers and came three days after the story broke but nearly a month after the 2 October incident.

Just last week, Guardian Australia reported that it had spoken to a number of women who were searched and none had received an apology or offer of compensation from Qatar.

The state of Qatar effectively owns both Hamad Airport and the flag carrier, Qatar Airways. Before the initial statement, Minister Payne reiterated that she thought the treatment was “offensive” and “grossly inappropriate” to a parliamentary hearing.

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’.

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