Australia revealed Wednesday that female passengers on 10 planes flying out of Doha were forced to endure “appalling” physical examinations, as Qatar expressed regret for the distress caused to the women.
The Gulf emirate had already been facing a huge hit to its reputation after reports emerged that women were removed from a Sydney-bound Qatar Airways flight and forced to undergo vaginal inspections on October 2.
The searches were carried after a newborn baby had been abandoned at Doha airport. Qatar’s government said Wednesday in its first account of the events that the baby had been wrapped in plastic and left to die in a rubbish bin.
But Australia continued to pile pressure on Qatar, with Foreign Minister Marise Payne announcing that the number of planes targeted was much greater than a single flight.
She told a Senate committee that women on “10 aircraft in total” had been subject to the searches, including 18 women — including 13 Australians — on the flight to Sydney.
AFP understands one French woman on the Sydney-bound plane was also among them.
Payne did not detail the destinations of the other flights, adding she was unaware if any Australian women were on those planes.
Payne had already described the incidents as “grossly disturbing” and “offensive”.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also weighed into the controversy on Wednesday, describing the treatment of the women as “appalling” and “unacceptable”.
“As a father of a daughter, I could only shudder at the thought that anyone would, Australian or otherwise, would be subjected to that,” he said.
Qatar is a conservative Muslim monarchy, where sex and childbirth out of wedlock are punishable by jail.
Ahead of its hosting of football’s World Cup in 2022, it has struggled to reassure critics that its promises on women’s rights, labour relations, and democracy are credible.
– ‘Distress’ –
Facing potentially devastating commercial and reputational damage, Qatar’s government released a statement Wednesday to explain its version of events while promising to ensure the future “safety, security and comfort” of passengers.
“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,” the statement.
Prime Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al-Thani had ordered an investigation and the results would be shared with international partners, it added.
However, the statement did not specifically detail that women had been forcibly examined, only referring to a “search for the parents”.
The statement said the newborn baby was a girl and had been “concealed” in a plastic bag and buried under garbage in the bin.
“The baby girl was rescued from what appeared to be a shocking and appalling attempt to kill her. The infant is now safe under medical care in Doha,” it said.
Human Rights Watch called Wednesday for the airport incident to trigger much greater reforms to protect women.
“In Qatar and across the Gulf region, sexual relations outside of wedlock are criminalised, meaning a pregnant woman who is not married, even if the pregnancy is the result of rape, may end up facing arrest and prosecution,” the watchdog said in a statement.
“Qatar should prohibit forced gynaecological exams and investigate and bring to account any individuals who authorised any demeaning treatment. It should also decriminalise sex outside of wedlock.”
Qatar Airways is one of the few airlines that has maintained flights to Australia since the country closed its international border early in the pandemic and restricted the return of its own citizens.