A Thai court on Monday rejected an attempt to block the deportation of a Saudi woman who made a desperate plea for asylum, saying she feared for her life after escaping an abusive family.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun told AFP she ran away from her family while traveling in Kuwait because they subjected her to physical and psychological abuse.
The 18-year-old said she had planned to travel to Australia and seek asylum there, and feared she would be killed if she was repatriated by Thai immigration officials who stopped her during transit on Sunday.
The incident comes against the backdrop of intense scrutiny of Saudi Arabia over its investigation and handling of the shocking murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year, which has renewed criticism of the kingdom’s rights record.
Human rights lawyer Nadthasiri Bergman filed an injunction to block her deportation but it was rejected by Bangkok’s criminal court.
“They dismissed the request,” she told AFP. “They said we do not have enough evidence,” she said, adding they planned to appeal.
Thai officials had said Qunun would be sent back but the Kuwait Airways flight departed on Monday without her, according to Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Qunun had posted a video of her barricading her hotel room door with furniture.
She said she was stopped by Saudi and Kuwaiti officials when she arrived at the Thai capital’s Suvarnabhumi airport and her travel document was forcibly taken from her, a claim backed by HRW.
Asked if Qunun was seeking asylum, Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn said: “we do not know but if anyone wants to seek asylum, they have to wait for those countries to reply”.
Abdulilah al-Shouaibi, charge d’affaires at the Saudi embassy in Bangkok, acknowledged in an interview with Saudi-owned channel Rotana Khalijial that the woman’s father had contacted the diplomatic mission for “help” to bring her back.
But he denied that her passport had been seized and that embassy official were present inside the airport.
Barricaded in room
If sent back, Qunun told AFP she would likely be imprisoned and was “sure 100 percent” her family would kill her, she told AFP.
“My family is strict and locked me in a room for six months just for cutting my hair,” she added.
Immigration chief Surachate defended stopping her and argued that otherwise many people would use the same excuse to stay in Thailand.
“Thailand has reasons to send her back which were based on law. We did not send her back to die,” he said on Facebook.
He had said she was denied entry because she lacked “further documents such as return ticket or money”.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry released a statement on Twitter from its Bangkok embassy, disputing her account.
“Her passport was not impounded by the Saudi embassy,” it said, adding that she was stopped by Thai authorities for “violating the law”.
“She will be deported to the State of Kuwait where her family” lives, it added. Qunun, however, told AFP that she was only traveling in the Gulf state.
HRW’s Robertson said she “faces grave harm if she is forced back to Saudi Arabia”, and that Thailand should allow her to see the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and apply for asylum.
“Given Saudi Arabia’s long track record of looking the other way in so-called honor violence incidents, her worry that she could be killed if returned cannot be ignored,” 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.”
The UNHCR said that according to the principle of non-refoulement, asylum seekers cannot be returned to their country of origin if their life is under threat and that it has been trying to seek access to Qunun.
The ultra-conservative Saudi kingdom has long been criticized for imposing some of the world’s toughest restrictions on women.
That includes a guardianship system that allows men to exercise arbitrary authority to make decisions on behalf of their female relatives.
In addition to facing punishment for “moral” crimes, women can also become the target of “honor killings” at the hands of their families, activists say.