Immigration

Saudi sisters fleeing to Aust stuck in HK

"I was like a prisoner": two Saudi sisters who are trapped in Hong Kong say they were beaten by their brothers and father, and had hoped to flee to Australia.

Two sisters from Saudi Arabia who fled the kingdom and planned to board a flight to Australia have been hiding out in Hong Kong for the past six months.

The sisters, who say they fled to escape beatings at the hands of their brothers and father, arrived in the Chinese territory from Sri Lanka in September.

They say they were prevented from boarding a connecting flight to Australia and were intercepted at the airport by diplomats from Saudi Arabia.

Reuters could not independently verify their story.

Asked about the case, Hong Kong police said they had received a report from "two expatriate women" in September and were investigating, but did not elaborate.

The Saudi consulate in Hong Kong has not responded to repeated requests from Reuters for comment.

The case is the second high-profile example this year of Saudi women seeking to escape their country.

The sisters, aged 18 and 20, managed to leave Hong Kong airport but consular officials have since revoked their passports, leaving them stranded in the city for nearly six months, their lawyer Michael Vidler said.

Vidler, one of the leading activist lawyers in the territory, also confirmed the authenticity of a Twitter account written by the two women describing their plight.

On Saturday, the women described what they said was a repressive and unhappy life at their home in the Saudi capital Riyadh.

They said they had adopted the aliases Reem and Rawan because they fear using their real names could lead to their being traced if granted asylum in a third country.

They posed for pictures but asked their features not be revealed.

Every decision had to be approved by the men in their house, from the clothes they wore to the hairstyle they chose - even the times when they woke and went to sleep, the sisters told Reuters.

"They were like my jailer, like my prison officer. I was like a prisoner," said the younger sister, Rawan, referring to two brothers aged 24 and 25 as well as her father.

"It was basically modern day slavery. You can't go out of the house unless someone is with us. Sometimes we will stay for months without even seeing the sun," the elder sister, Reem, said.

In January, a Saudi woman made global headlines by barricading herself in a Bangkok airport hotel to avoid being sent home to her family. She was later granted asylum in Canada.

Reem and Rawan said their 10-year-old brother was also encouraged to beat them.

The family includes two other sisters, aged five and 12. Reem said she and her sister feel terrible about leaving them although they "hope their family will get a lesson from this and it might help to change their lives for the better".

Reem and Rawan decided to escape while on a family holiday in Sri Lanka in September. They had secretly saved around $US5000 since 2016, some of it accumulated by scrimping on items they were given money to buy.

The timing of their escape was carefully planned to coincide with Rawan's 18th birthday so she could apply for a visitor's visa to Australia without her parents' approval.

But what was supposed to be a two-hour stopover in Hong Kong has turned into nearly six months and the sisters are now living in fear that they will be forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia.

They have said they have renounced Islam, a crime punishable by death under the Saudi system of sharia, or Islamic law, although the punishment has not been carried out in recent memory.

The pair say they have changed locations 13 times in Hong Kong, living in hotels, shelters and with individuals who are helping, sometimes staying just one night in a place before moving on to ensure their safety.

Vidler said the Hong Kong Immigration Department told the women their Saudi passports had been invalidated and they could only stay in the city until February 28.

The sisters have applied for asylum in a third country which they declined to name in a bid keep the information from Saudi authorities and their family.

"We believe that we have the right to live like any other human being," said Reem, who said she studied English literature in Riyadh and dreams of becoming a writer one day.

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