Middle East

Qatar airport officers charged over invasive searches as Australia demands accountability

Qatar's public prosecutor has filed criminal charges against police officers working at Qatar's Hamad airport over invasive strip searches. Source: NurPhoto

The Australian government says it expects those responsible for the invasive searches will be held to account.

Prosecutors in Qatar say the airport police officers who ordered forced internal medical examinations of female passengers after an abandoned newborn was discovered in a rubbish bin face possible three-year prison sentences.

Prosecutors did not say how many police officers at Hamad International Airport faced charges over the 2 October incident that sparked widespread anger in Australia, a key destination for the state-owned Qatar Airways.

"Extensive investigations revealed that some employees of the Airport Security Department acted unilaterally by summoning female medical staff to conduct external examination to some female passengers, thinking that what they had done was within the law," a statement from prosecutors said.

In a statement on Tuesday, the federal government confirmed it had been provided with an update on the investigations and said those responsible for the “grossly inappropriate and offensive” searches must be held to account.

“The Australian government expects just and proportionate accountability for those responsible for offences,” a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson told SBS News.

“This is a matter for the Qatari law enforcement and justice systems, but Australia expects and has been seeking regular updates on the progress of the investigations and legal proceedings.”

The spokesperson said once the investigations are completed Australia also expects a report on the incidents and on the measures taken to ensure they are never repeated.

The abandoned newborn's mother, whom the Qatari statement described as a "convict," faces up to 15 years in prison if apprehended. The woman apparently flew out of the country before the baby was discovered.

Qatar said Monday it had identified the parents of the abandoned baby girl. The public prosecutor said the mother and father were from "Asian countries" which in Qatar typically refers to the nations of South Asia where a large number of migrant workers come from.

Efforts were under way "to arrest the fugitive" who is overseas and faces 15 years imprisonment, the prosecutor said in a statement that called her a "convict", suggesting she may have been convicted in absentia.

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"Investigations revealed that the infant's mother... threw the newborn infant in the trash can in one of the toilets in the departures lounge at the airport and boarded the plane to her destination," the prosecutor said.

"(The mother) had a relationship with another person of the nationality of one of the Asian countries as well, and this relationship resulted in the infant that was found.

"The father of the infant admitted that he had a relationship with the infant's mother, and that she had sent him a message and a photo of the newborn infant immediately after her birth." 

The mother had told the father that she had dumped the baby and departed the country, the statement added, while DNA screening proved they were the child's parents.

All expatriates coming to Qatar for long-term work are required to give a substantial sample of blood during the registration process.

Women on 10 Qatar Airways flights out of Doha, including one to Sydney, were subjected to the examinations following the incident on 2 October, leading to a diplomatic row with Australia.

The physical examinations of passengers bound for Sydney and nine other unnamed destinations triggered outrage in Australia.

The government denounced the searches as inappropriate and beyond circumstances in which the women could give free and informed consent.

Rights activists say such exams conducted under duress amount to sexual assault.

'Unacceptable treatment'

Two Doha-based sources have told AFP that Qatari authorities had requested an Interpol red notice in order to have the woman identified as the mother brought to Doha to face charges.

The incident only came to light weeks after it occurred, when affected Australian passengers spoke out, with Canberra labelling the episode "appalling".

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The public prosecutor said "some employees" of airport security had broken the law by ordering the searches - for which Qatar only apologised weeks after they took place - and face three years imprisonment.

It gave no details of how senior those charged were, or how many would be punished.

The baby was found abandoned in a bin in a bathroom at Hamad International Airport.
The baby was found abandoned in a bin in a bathroom at Hamad International Airport.
traveller.com.au

Diplomats have suggested that such a major operation requiring the suspension of flight operations at the authoritarian state's airport could not have been authorised by a handful of junior staff.

Qatar is an ultra-conservative Muslim monarchy, where sex and childbirth outside of marriage are punishable by jail.

Ahead of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, it has struggled to reassure critics that its promises on women's rights, labour relations and democracy are credible.

Prime Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al-Thani, who as interior minister is also responsible for the security services, previously tweeted that "we regret the unacceptable treatment of the female passengers" at Doha airport.

Additional reporting by Tom Stayner.

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