The government of Qatar has said it “regrets any distress or infringement on the personal freedom of any traveller” caused by a decision to conduct intimate medical examinations of women transiting through Doha international airport, in what it said was an “urgently-decided search” to find the mother of an abandoned baby.
On Wednesday morning the Australian government confirmed that 18 women on a flight from Doha to Sydney were subjected to the compulsory medical examination, including 13 Australian citizens. Passengers from 10 flights leaving Doha on the evening of 2 October were affected.
Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, said the invasive treatment of the women was “unacceptable” and “appalling” and his government would “continue to take a very strident approach” in seeking answers and ensuring it would never be repeated.
The Qatari government broke its silence on Wednesday, three days after the incident became global news. It said the search was triggered by the discovery of a baby in a trash can at Hamad international airport, “concealed in a plastic bag and buried under garbage”.
“The baby girl was rescued from what appeared to be a shocking and appalling attempt to kill her,” the statement said. “The infant is now safe under medical care in Doha.
“This was the first instance of an abandoned infant being discovered in such a condition at HIA – 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. 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 traveler caused by this action.
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“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.”
Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday travellers were entitled to travel “free of those types of incidents” and Australia expected to see the results of the investigation very soon.
“As a father of daughters, I could only shudder at the thought that any woman, Australian or otherwise, would be subjected to that,” the prime minister said.
Morrison said he was determined to ensure there was no repeat of the incident, noting Qatar Airways was currently performing an important role in carrying about 15% of the Australians returning home after being stranded during the pandemic.
Asked whether Australia would seek an unqualified apology from the Qatari government, or compensation for the women, Morrison said the government would consider all options once it had the opportunity to review the investigation.
“There is no doubt in the mind of whether it’s Qatari airlines or the government, about Australia’s strong objections and views about this and I think those views are shared, widely, so we will make a further response, not our first response, a further response, once we have the opportunity to see the results of that investigation.”
Eighteen women were on the Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Sydney which has been highlighted in media reports this week.
The Australian foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, would not name the other countries whose citizens were affected, but Agence France-Presse reported that one French woman was on the flight.
Payne told a Senate estimates hearing on Wednesday that 10 flights leaving Hamad international airport in Doha had been caught up in the search.
Payne said the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had not become aware of the number of other flights affected until Tuesday.
“The issues which have been discussed in relation to this matter are very concerning and very distressing and the Australian government has been quite clear about that,” Payne said. “There is a series of meetings occurring in Qatar as late as yesterday. Australia is not the only country affected.”
Those meetings involved the airport, Qatar Airways and the government of Qatar, Payne said.
The incident was reported to Australian authorities by women on the flight upon their arrival in Sydney on 3 October. Some passengers made a report to the Australian federal police at the airport, and one woman on the flight, a DFAT employee, emailed the department that night.
The woman was not travelling on official business.
The incident was then immediately flagged with the Australian consulate in Doha.
The first assistant secretary of the department, Dr Angela McDonald, then spoke to the Qatar ambassador on 6 October and was told a report on the women’s treatment would be produced.
That report has not yet been produced. Payne said she had not spoken directly to anyone in the government of Qatar before calling in the ambassador this week. She said she had arranged to speak to the foreign minister of Qatar after the report was released, and the Australian ambassador to Qatar met the Qatari foreign minister overnight.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Penny Wong, asked why the minister had chosen not to speak directly to her Qatari counterpart, and why she did not speak to the ambassador in person until the incident was reported this week.
“I understand the need to see the report … but surely we know enough to raise our deep concerns and express, at the most senior levels of government, the importance of the report being finalised publicly?” Wong said.
Payne said there had been “extensive engagement through this process … right across the system”.
The foreign affairs department secretary, Frances Adamson, said the Qatari government was also distressed by the incident.
“I should say also from the Qatari side there is a very strong determination to report as soon as possible,” Adamson said.
“Is there?” Wong asked.
“Yes, there is, senator,” said Payne.
Adamson said Qatar had “a reaction to this incident which I think matches our own in terms of level of distress, abhorrence and a deep questioning of how this can have happened”.
She said the department was taking the incident seriously and she was “incredulous that it could have happened”.
“This is not, by any standard, normal behaviour and Qatar recognise that, are appalled by it, do not want it to happen again and are working with other agencies,” Adamson said.
Qatar’s record on women’s rights has in the past been criticised by human rights groups. Among points of discrimination highlighted by Human Rights Watch are a penal code that “does not criminalize domestic violence or marital rape” and a personal status law that says a “wife is responsible for looking after the household and obeying her husband”.
Payne said she had not yet discussed the matter directly with the prime minister, but that his office had been advised on 5 October – the same day her office was advised.
McDonald said no one from the department had been in direct contact with the women.
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