A group of women are taking on Qatar Airways in a ‘David and Goliath’ legal battle after they were ordered off a Sydney-bound flight at Doha Hamad International Airport in October 2020 and subjected to invasive vaginal exams.
Seven of the thirteen Australian victims on board the 2nd October 2020 flight have filed a lawsuit against the government-owned airline and the Qatari Civil Aviation Authority, accusing them of assault, battery and deprivation of liberty.
The lawsuit comes after Qatar Airways allegedly refused to meet with the victims. The airline says their legal claim is “without merit” according to Australia’s 60 Minutes show which reinterviewed three of the women a year on from their harrowing ordeal at Qatar Airways’ hub.
The women were travelling home to Australia having secured sought-after places in hotel quarantine and were initially relieved when they got onboard Qatar Airways flight QR902 to Sydney. But then things took a sinister turn.
Passengers were left waiting onboard the plane for four hours with no explanation from staff before all the women were ordered off the aircraft by black-clad armed guards.
“There was a message over the loudspeaker ‘can all women disembark the aeroplane with their passports’,” explained Sophie, one of the victims who described how passengers were left in shock and trying to gather more information from the cabin crew.
Another victim, known only as Jane, feared something terrible was about to happen. “Police officers were coming on the plane and they had guns and things. I didn’t know if it was a hostage situation, if it was a terrorist situation,” she told 60 Minutes.
“We felt like criminals really. I kept thinking, oh my goodness, if they think I’m guilty of something, what’s going to happen to me in this country?”
The 13 women were led into a lift and taken down onto the tarmac where several ambulances were waiting. Still none the wiser as to what was actually happening, the women were led one by one onto the ambulances.
“I stepped up into the ambulance and there was a female in there and all she said was this one line: ‘a baby has been found in a bin and we need to test you’,” Jane explained.
A newborn baby had been found in a bin inside a lavatory at the airport and in a desperate bid to find the mother, who Qatar authorities considered a criminal, officials stopped every flight in the vicinity from departing.
Police officers believed the mother was a passenger so a plan was hatched to strip-search female passengers of child-bearing age. It’s not known how many women in total were subjected to forced vaginal exams but Human Rights Watch estimates that women were ordered off around 10 different flights.
After entering the ambulance, Sophie was ordered to lie down.
“She asked me if I would lie down on the table. I was laying there thinking ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen to me’. And she just asked me: ‘we need to remove your pants’. And I remember thinking this is bizarre.”
She initially refused to lower her underwear despite the nurse insisting she had to. “I was physically holding them up,” Sophie recalled.
Anna had already started to get upset even before reaching the ambulance. “I thought that we are now kidnapped. We’re going to be political pawns. We’re going to be raped and my child is going to be taken and we’ll never see our family again. It was the scariest moment of my life.”
“This was the moment I broke down and the other women started getting uneasy as we realised something sinister was happening.”
Anna recounted how a nurse forcibly removed her underwear in the presence of her five-month-old son. “She grabbed my pants and underwear and stripped them”.
“No one is allowed to touch me, to strip me naked, without my consent… and that’s what happened in a major airport with a major airline.”
Sophie had the foresight to have another woman join her in the ambulance and act as. a witness but it didn’t make the horrific experience any more bearable.
“I felt very angry, I felt full of rage leaving the ambulance,” Sophie said. “I felt powerless.”
Following the incident, some of the women contacted the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and their barbaric treatment soon made headlines around the world.
Qatar’s Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al Thani eventually apologised for what had happened to the women and vowed legal action against those responsible.
The blame was pinned on one police officer who received a suspended prison sentence.
“The incident was in breach of many international covenants and obviously in breach of human rights,” explained Damian Strurzaker, a lawyer from Sydney-based law firm Marque which is representing some of the victims.
“We want a reasonable outcome and for positive steps to be taken to guarantee the safety of women and more generally people travelling through Doha,” he continued.
Strurzaker, however, admitted that the legal action was a David and Goliath battle and that it would be difficult to take on one of the richest countries per head of population in the world.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.