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Explained: Why a group of Australian women are suing Qatar for a 2020 strip search at Doha airport

The Gulf state launched an investigation and an unspecified number of airport security staff were charged. But the women’s lawyer Damian Sturzaker said not enough has been done.

Written by Rahel Philipose , Edited by Explained Desk | Panaji |
Updated: November 18, 2021 1:33:27 pm
The incident occurred on October 2 last year, when the women were ordered off a flight and strip searched by nurses in an ambulance on the tarmac. (Reuters)

A group of seven Australian women are suing the government of Qatar after they were forced to undergo an invasive medical examination at the Doha International airport, their lawyer confirmed Tuesday.

The incident occurred on October 2 last year, when the women were ordered off a flight and strip searched by nurses in an ambulance on the tarmac. The women said they were not asked for permission nor were they told why they were undergoing the searches.

The incident, described by the women as “state sponsored assault”, sparked widespread outrage. At the time, Qatar’s Prime Minister Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al Thani apologised saying: “We regret the unacceptable treatment of the female passengers… What took place does not reflect Qatar’s laws or values.”

The Gulf state launched an investigation and an unspecified number of airport security staff were charged. But the women’s lawyer Damian Sturzaker said not enough has been done.

Why were the women made to undergo the medical examination?

The strip searches were conducted after the airport authorities found a newborn baby wrapped in a plastic bag near a trash can in a bathroom at Hamad International Airport, the government said at the time.

Eighteen women were taken from different planes — including two British women and 13 from Australia — for strip searches after the baby was discovered. But not all the women were ultimately examined.

The women were taken off the plane by armed Qatari authorities and subjected to invasive gynaecological examinations in ambulances on the airport tarmac, to determine whether they were the mother of the baby.

“I was certain that I was either going to be killed by one of the many men that had a gun, or that my husband on the plane was going to be killed,” one of the women said in a statement from her lawyer, according to BBC.

How did the Qatar government respond to the incident?

Following widespread outrage, Qatar’s government apologised for the incident and said the baby was safe. The government said that the baby girl had been found wrapped in a plastic bag, buried under trash, which led to an “immediate search for the parents, including on flights in the vicinity of where the newborn was found”.

“While the aim of the urgently-decided search was to prevent the perpetrators of the horrible crime from escaping, the State of Qatar regrets any distress or infringement on the personal freedoms of any traveller caused by this action,” the government said in a statement. The incident was denounced around the world, with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling it “appalling” and “unacceptable”.

The government then called for a “comprehensive, transparent investigation” into the incident. Following a criminal prosecution, one airport staff member was arrested.

But the women’s lawyer pointed out that the results of the investigation were not published, CNN reported. “Nothing has been done,” the lawyer Sturzaker said.

Why are the women filing a lawsuit against Qatar now?

The women, who are all between the ages of 30 and 50, said they had suffered recurring mental health issues after the incident, including post-traumatic stress disorder. According to Sturzaker, some of the women developed a fear of flying, had to take time off from work and seek psychological counselling.

They are now seeking an apology from Qatari authorities and are also calling for an open dialogue to ensure incidents like this never happen again.

The women are seeking damages, the lawyer said, adding that a suit will be filed within the next few weeks in the New South Wales Supreme Court in Sydney.

What is the legality of strip searches?

There are no universal laws as far as invasive examinations at airports are concerned. Given that it can be intrusive — particularly when it comes to security personnel inspecting body cavities — it mostly requires legal authority.

In this case, the lawsuit states that if the incident had taken place in Australia, it would have amounted to assault and battery. In North American, civil lawsuits in such cases have usually been successful, particularly when the search was conducted by someone of the opposite sex.

One of the more lasting effects of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, commonly referred to as 9/11, that killed 2,977 Americans, was increased security and reduced privacy at airports around the world. Before this, security screening did exist. But it was far less intrusive.

Notably, months after the attacks, former US President George W. Bush signed legislation creating the Transportation Security Administration — federal airport screeners who replaced the private companies that were previously responsible for airport security. The law required that all checked bags be screened, cockpit doors be reinforced, and more federal air marshals be put on flights, according to an AP report.

As per strip search laws in Australia’s New South Wales, this invasive check is only conducted as a last resort. Security personnel can conduct such a search based on ‘reasonable suspicion’ that you have something illegal in your possession, such as drugs or an illegal weapon. But there must be a factual basis for the suspicion.

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