Saudi teen dodges Thai deportation bid

Al-Qunun reportedly still in Bangkok despite attempt to force her onto flight to Kuwait as German embassy, HRW intervene
Saudi teen dodges Thai deportation bid

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, says she is fleeing domestic abuse and fears for her safety if forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia. (Photo supplied) reporter, Bangkok
January 7, 2019
A Saudi teenager being held at a Thai airport while seeking refugee status overseas narrowly escaped being sent back to the Middle East on Monday morning, according to tweets from Human Rights Watch, a close friend, and other parties.

Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun has been seeking asylum in various countries due to fears her family would torture or even kill her for renouncing Islam, a Sydney-based friend of the woman told Britain's The Guardian. Al-Qunun was transiting to Australia when she was stopped in Bangkok.

The same friend told the British media earlier that Thai authorities were planning to have the 18-year-old board a Kuwait Airways flight to Kuwait at 11.15am (Thai time) on Monday.

Al-Qunun was holidaying with family in Kuwait several days earlier when she made her daring escape bid, according to reports.

Just hours before the Kuwait-bound plane was due to take off on Monday, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), tweeted that Rahaf had barricaded herself in her hotel room and that reports of her being deported were false.

The narrative changed quickly in the next few hours.

Tweets from other parties, including from ABC's Middle East correspondent Sophie McNeill (@Sophiemcneill), claimed Al-Qunun had been forced from her hotel room against her will shortly after 6.a.m. and was later "dragged" onto the plane by airline staff. McNeil later tweeted Al-Qunun was safe. 

Robertson (@Reaproy) posted another tweet on his Twitter account around noon (Thai time) claiming the flight had left without Al-Qunun. He also praised the German embassy for intervening on her behalf.

"Kuwait Air flight KU412 has now departed #Bangkok without #Rahaf on board, so this is an important victory for her, & a real tribute to her courage. She is demanding #UNHCR be allowed to see her, but #so far Thailand is not agreeing to that," he tweeted.

A few hours earlier he had posted a message of thanks on the same social media site: "Thank you to the #German Embassy & government for standing up to #SaveRahaf and demanding that #Thailand not send her back to her family in #SaudiArabia."

Al-Qunun earlier told HRW that she fled while her family was visiting Kuwait, which unlike Saudi Arabia, does not require a male relative’s approval for an adult woman to depart the country. Al-Qunun said that she was fleeing abuse from her family, including beatings and death threats from her male relatives, who also forced her to remain in her room for six months for cutting her hair.

Robertson also told The Guardian that: "She has clearly stated that she has renounced Islam which also puts her at serious risk of prosecution by the Saudi Arabian government."

HRW added that Al-Qunun faces possible criminal charges in Saudi Arabia for "parental disobedience," which can result in punishments ranging from being returned to a guardian’s home to imprisonment, and for "harming the reputation of the kingdom" for her public appeals for help.

Thailand has invited censure from human rights groups in recent years for its accommodating policy of deporting individuals or groups seeking asylum within its borders, notably Muslim Uighurs from China.

More recently, Melbourne-based professional soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi, a Bahraini refugee, was arrested at a Bangkok airport on an Interpol red notice in December while visiting the kingdom with his wife.

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He is still being detained in the country while Bahrain seeks his extradition over a discredited vandalism conviction.

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