Qatar airport security employees were charged with unspecified crimes for invasive searches of female travelers following the discovery of an abandoned newborn at the Doha airport.
Qatar prosecutors said in a statement Monday that security officers violated the law by “summoning female medical staff to conduct external examinations” of airline passengers in a hunt for a woman who had just given birth. Employees face up to three years in prison if convicted.
The announcement of the charges came on the same day that Qatar officials revealed they had located the baby’s mother. The infant girl, abandoned at Hamad International Airport early last month, is now in the care of social services.
Several women on a Qatar Airways flight headed to Sydney when the newborn was discovered — including citizens from Australia, New Zealand and Britain — were ordered to disembark before takeoff, led to ambulances on the tarmac, locked inside and told to remove their underwear for an examination, the BBC reported. They were given no other information.
Some of the traumatized passengers, including several Australians, reported that the exams were not external, and they did not consent to them. One of the women told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that a staff member told her that she “needed to examine my vagina.” One official called it “state-sanctioned sexual assault.”
“It is distressing and disturbing and a gross violation of these women’s human rights,” Samantha Klintworth, director of Amnesty International Australia, told 7News in Australia.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison blasted the “appalling” searches. Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne called the measures a “grossly disturbing, offensive, concerning set of events.” Her ministry filed a complaint with Qatar.
Qatar leader Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al Thani acknowledged that procedures were violated and expressed his “sincerest apology for what some female travelers went through,” the BBC reported.
Airport officials initially told the Doha News that the searches were conducted because of a concern for the mother’s health and welfare. But in a later statement, officials said the searches were “wholly inconsistent with Qatar’s culture and values.”
The newborn’s mother and father are both from “Asian countries,” prosecutors said. In Qatar, that typically means nations in South Asia, a source of a large number of migrant workers.
Officials have charged the mother with attempted murder. She is currently in another country and officials are working with international authorities to “arrest the fugitive convict.” She could face up to 15 years in prison If she’s extradited and found guilty.
The father of the newborn, believed to still be in Qatar, told authorities that the mother had sent him a photo of the newborn and told him she was abandoning the baby, Al Jazeera reported.
It’s illegal to have sex outside of marriage in the ultraconservative nation, and migrant women who become pregnant out of wedlock risk imprisonment, driving some to abandon their babies.