Australia

Qatari government 'regrets distress' caused by invasive searches of Australian flight passengers

Foreign Minister Marine Payne has congratulated Ms Stott Despoja on her election. Source: AAP

The Qatari government said the invasive physical examinations of a number of plane passengers at Doha airport was necessary to prevent perpetrators of a 'horrible crime' from escaping.

Qatar's government says it regrets "any distress or infringement on personal freedoms" caused after a number of Australian women were subjected to invasive physical examinations following the discovery of an abandoned premature baby at Doha airport.

The statement from Qatar's Government Communications Office, released on Wednesday, said the searches of women on a flight to Sydney was necessary to "prevent the perpetrators of the horrible crime from escaping" after the baby was discovered earlier this month. 

"The baby girl was rescued from what appeared to be a shocking and appalling attempt to kill her," the statement read. It said the baby was concealed in plastic and buried under garbage when it was found at Hamad International Airport. 

Foreign Minister Marise Payne has described the searches as "grossly disturbing" and on Wednesday told a Senate committee the incident had triggered high-level diplomatic meetings.

She also revealed that 18 women were removed from a plane bound for Australia, including 13 Australians and five foreign nationals. It remains unclear how many of them were searched.

The committee heard that the invasive searches were conducted on passengers from 10 different flights. 

"The issues which have been discussed in relation to this matter are very concerning and very distressing," Senator Payne said.

Labor's foreign affairs spokesperson Penny Wong questioned why the minister had not yet spoken directly with her Qatari counterpart.

"You haven't spoken to the Foreign Minister of Qatar?" she asked Senator Payne.

"Surely we know enough to raise our deep concern and express at the most senior levels of government the importance of the report being finalised promptly."

But Senator Payne and Prime Minister Scott Morrison said they were waiting for Qatar's report into the incident.

"We will consider all of these options once we have the opportunity to review the investigation," Mr Morrison said later on Wednesday.

Qatar's Prime Minister, Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al Thani, has called for a "comprehensive, transparent investigation" be conducted into the incident, the government statement said. 

"The State of Qatar remains committed to ensuring the safety, security and comfort of all travellers transiting through the country," it continued. 

The committee heard some women had came forward to the Australian Federal Police, who have remained in contact with those affected.

DFAT department secretary Frances Adamson confirmed a staff member was on one of the planes.

Ms Adamson told the committee the searches did not meet a standard of acceptable behaviour.

"It sounded incredible. As in how can this have happened? I was incredulous that it could have happened," she told the hearing.

"This is not - by any standard - normal behaviour and the Qataris recognise that, are appalled by it, do not want it to happen again, and are working with us and other partners to work through it.”

Up to 15 per cent of Australians returning home from overseas are travelling on Qatar airlines. "They are actually providing a pretty important role in getting Australians home," Mr Morrison said.  

Additional reporting AAP

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