AN 18-YEAR-old Saudi woman who fled her family after renouncing Islam and is being detained in Bangkok fears she will be killed if she is repatriated, as a friend close to her said the threats to her life were real.
A Sydney-based friend of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun told the Guardian that Thai authorities planned to force her to board the Kuwait Airways KU412 flight to Kuwait, scheduled to leave at 11.15am on Monday. Thai immigration officials have confirmed she has been denied entry to the country.
She has barricaded herself in her hotel room and Thai immigration officials congregated outside her hotel room door. Qunun has said she will not leave until she can see the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s Asia deputy director.
Qunun said she was trying to escape her family, saying they subjected her to physical and psychological abuse, and was in transit to seek asylum in Australia, where she claimed to have a visa.
“My family is strict and locked me in a room for six months just for cutting my hair,” she said, adding that she was certain she would be imprisoned if sent back. “I’m sure 100% they will kill me as soon as I get out of the Saudi jail,” she said, adding that she was “scared” and “losing hope”.
A 20-year-old friend of Qunun, whom the Guardian has chosen not to name and who recently moved from Saudi Arabia to Australia, told the Guardian the threats to her were real. “She’s ex-Muslim and has a very strict family, they’re using violence with her and she faced sexual harassment,” she said. “She received a threat from her cousin – he said he wants to see her blood, he wants to kill her.”
She said: “If they didn’t kill her they couldn’t go [around in] public after this [Qunun renouncing the Muslim faith], so they have to do it. It’s like, ‘If you’re a man you should prove it’. If they don’t kill her they can’t go outside and see other men.”
Qunun’s 20-year-old friend has lived in Australia for three months, and said she was seeking asylum there after being abused in Saudi Arabia. She said she had known Qunun for one year, after connecting with her online. “She’s an activist, she’s a feminist,” she said. “There are lots of feminist groups [in Saudi Arabia].
“They gather online to protect each other, help each other. [For example] I saw a woman giving money to shelters, food, donations. Even buying tickets for women escaping.”
Robertson said there was “no doubt” Qunun needed refugee protection and that the UNHCR had to attend the airport hotel and be given immediate access.
“Rahaf faces grave harm is she is forced back to Saudi Arabia so she should be allowed to see UNHCR and apply for asylum, and Thailand should agree to follow whatever the UN refugee agency decides,” Robertson told the Guardian.
“She’s desperately fearful of her family, including her father who is a senior government official, and given Saudi Arabia’s long track record of looking the other way in so-called honour violence incidents, her worry that she could be killed if returned cannot be discounted,” he said.
“She has clearly stated that she has renounced Islam which also puts her at serious risk of prosecution by the Saudi Arabian government.”
Qunun, from Ha’il, a city in north-west Saudi Arabia, said she was stopped by Saudi and Kuwaiti officials when she arrived at Suvarnabhumi airport on Sunday and her travel document was forcibly taken from her, a claim backed by Human Rights Watch.
The Saudi embassy in Bangkok said al-Qunun was being held for not having a return ticket, and that she still had her passport, a claim denied by Qunun on Monday.
“They took my passport,” she said, adding that her male guardian had reported her for travelling “without his permission”.
She spent Sunday night in a hotel in the Bangkok airport, and tweeted that officials were posted outside her door to stop her leaving. On Monday morning she said she was trying to claim asylum in Thailand.
Qunun was stopped when she flew in from Kuwait on Sunday, said Thailand’s immigration chief, Surachate Hakparn.
“She had no further documents such as return ticket or money,” he said. “She ran away from her family to avoid marriage and she is concerned she may be in trouble returning to Saudi Arabia. We sent officials to take care of her now.”
He said Thai authorities had contacted the Saudi embassy “to coordinate”.
Surachate said Qunun would be sent back to Saudi Arabia on Monday. “It’s a family problem,” he said of the case.
Another Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, was stopped in transit in the Philippines in April 2017 when she attempted to flee her family.
An airline security official told activists that Lasloom, who was 24 at the time, was heard “screaming and begging for help” as men carried her “with duct tape on her mouth, feet and hands” at the airport.
The Saudi embassy in Thailand and officials in Riyadh could not be reached for comment. (Agence France-Presse)
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