Rahaf al-Qunun: Saudi woman blocks Bangkok deportation move

screen grab from a video released to AFPTV via the Twitter account of Rahaf Mohammed al-QununImage copyright
AFP

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“My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things,” Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun said

A young Saudi woman who says she has fled her family in fear for her life has barricaded herself in her hotel room at Bangkok airport.

Thai immigration officials want to return Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, to Kuwait, where her family is.

She refused to board a flight to Kuwait City on Monday, despite officials stationed outside her room.

“My brothers and family and the Saudi embassy will be waiting for me in Kuwait,” the teenager told Reuters.

“They will kill me. My life is in danger. My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things.”

Rights groups including Human Rights Watch have expressed grave concerns over Ms Mohammed al-Qunun’s welfare.

“She has barricaded herself in the room & says she will not leave” until she is allowed to meet the UN refugee agency and claim asylum, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said on Twitter.

Mr Robertson said Thai lawyers have filed an injunction in Bangkok criminal court “to prevent the deportation of Rahaf to Kuwait”, adding: “time is short & she faces dire peril”.

How did the stand-off start?

Ms Mohammed al-Qunun was on holiday with her family in Kuwait when she fled two days ago. She was trying to head to Australia, where she hoped to seek asylum, via a connecting flight in Bangkok.

She says her passport was seized by a Saudi diplomat who met her coming off the flight at Suvarnabhumi airport on Sunday.

She insists she has a visa for Australia, and never wanted to stay in Thailand.

The Saudi embassy in Bangkok said Ms Mohammed al-Qunun had been held at the airport “because she didn’t have a return ticket” and that she is set to be deported to Kuwait “where most of her family lives”.

It said Saudi Arabia does not have the authority to hold her at the airport or anywhere else, and that officials are in touch with her father.

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Mr Robertson of Human Rights Watch told the BBC: “It seems that the Thai government is manufacturing a story that she tried to apply for a visa and it was denied… in fact, she had an onward ticket to go to Australia, she didn’t want to enter Thailand in the first place.”

He argued that the Thai authorities had clearly co-operated with Saudi Arabia as Saudi officials were able to meet the plane when it arrived.

How was the world alerted?

Ms Mohammed al-Qunun started attracting attention with her social media posts over the weekend. She has also given a friend access to her Twitter account, calling it a contingency in case anything should happen to her.

She told BBC Newshour she was in a hotel in the transit area.

“I shared my story and my pictures on social media and my father is so angry because I did this… I can’t study and work in my country, so I want to be free and study and work as I want,” she said.

Women in Saudi Arabia are subject to male guardianship laws, which mean they need a male relative’s permission to work, travel, marry, open a bank account, or even leave prison.

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Ms Mohammed al-Qunun wrote on Twitter that she had decided to share her name and details because she had “nothing to lose” now.

She has asked for asylum from governments around the world.

A photo appeared of her in her room as officials reportedly stood outside, waiting to put her on a flight back to Kuwait.

Why are there fears for her welfare?

The BBC’s Jonathan Head in Bangkok says Ms Mohammed al-Qunun is frightened and confused.

She told the BBC that she had renounced Islam, and feared she would be forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia and killed by her family.

Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch said in a statement: “Saudi women fleeing their families can face severe violence from relatives, deprivation of liberty, and other serious harm if returned against their will.”

Thai Police Major General Surachate Hakparn told the BBC that Ms Mohammed al-Qunun was escaping a marriage, and called the case a “family problem”.

The case echoes that of another Saudi woman who was in transit to Australia in April 2017.

Dina Ali Lasloom, 24, was en route from Kuwait via the Philippines but was taken back to Saudi Arabia from Manila airport by her family.

She used a Canadian tourist’s phone to send a message, a video of which was posted to Twitter, saying her family would kill her.

Her fate on arriving back in Saudi Arabia remains unknown.

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