A number of Australian women are preparing to sue the government of Qatar over its involvement in a series of invasive and non-consensual genital exams forced on them at Doha’s international airport last year.
In total, seven of the 13 Australian women that were removed from their flights in order to undergo the invasive exams are now seeking compensation from Qatari authorities, including the government, the Qatar Civil Aviation Authority, and state-owned Qatar Airways.
According to the women’s lawyer, Damian Sturzaker of Marque Lawyers, his clients are taking legal action after being traumatised by the event.
“The group of women have suffered enormous distress on the evening concerned, now just over a year ago, and they continue to suffer distress and ill effects and trauma as a result of what occurred,” he said.
The women are seeking to receive a formal apology for the incident, compensation and protection for future passengers travelling through the airport. It is not yet known the amount of compensation being sought.
The women hope the legal action will “send a message to Qatari authorities that you can’t treat women … in this manner”, Sturzaker said.
The seven Australian women were among women pulled from at least 10 different flights based at Doha’s Hamad International Airport in October 2020.
The women were brought to ambulances parked on the tarmac in order to undergo invasive gynecological exams, after a premature baby was found abandoned in one of the airport’s bathrooms.
The seven women taking legal action are aged from their early 30s to late 50s, and the matter is expected to proceed in the NSW Supreme Court within the coming weeks.
According to Sturzaker, the Qatari government, the civil aviation authority and the airline have all already been forwarded legal advice that Australian courts have jurisdiction to hear the case.
The lawyer confirmed that while Qatar Airways denied any involvement, the Qatari government is considering the women’s claim.
Despite this, “We don’t hold out much hope in relation to anything other than a rejection of the claim,” Sturzaker said, meaning the claim will likely end up going to trial.
Early reports of the incident suggest the women involved were “distraught” and “couldn’t believe what had happened”, as they were pulled from their long-delayed flights and subject to intimate examinations, with no explanation.
One of the clients involved in the claim anonymously told the BBC that she was “subjected to the most horrifically invasive physical exam”.
“I was certain that I was either going to be killed by one of the many men that had a gun, or that my husband on the plane was going to be killed,” she said in a statement from her lawyer.
In the past, the Qatari government has denied responsibility for the examinations, with the Qatar deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani expressing his “deepest sympathies with the women impacted by the search at the airport”.
“The incident is considered a violation of Qatar’s laws and values,” he said, adding that the officials involved had been referred to the public prosecutor.
In August, UK-based travel review site Skytrax named Hamad International Airport the “World’s Best Airport” for 2021, a decision that was later labelled as “ridiculous” by human rights advocacy group Human Rights Watch in light of the intimate examinations.
Senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch Rothna Begum called out Skytrax, arguing its inclusion of Hamad International in the running for the 2021 award signalled a disregard for the “safety and dignity” of women at airports.
“It seems ridiculous that Doha airport could be granted World’s Best Airport, given that in October 2020, the authorities had removed women off planes and forced a number of them to undergo gynecological exams which can amount to sexual assault,” she said.
Begum further suggested that the World’ Best Airport award adds insult to injury to the women around the world involved in the incident, who are yet to see closure on their traumatising experience.
“While the Qatari authorities issued an apology for the incident and said that they will investigate, there has been no mention of the completion of any such investigation, whether anyone was held to account, or any redress provided to the women concerned,” Begum said.