Australia says women on 10 flights subjected to Qatar body search

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Foreign Minister Marise Payne says other countries share Australia’s concern as Qatar launches investigation.

Female passengers on 10 planes flying out of Doha were forced to endure invasive physical examinations after a newborn was found abandoned in an airport toilet, Australia’s foreign minister said on Wednesday, greatly expanding the number of women thought affected as Qatar’s government said it had begun an investigation into the incident.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne told a hearing in Australia’s Senate that women on “10 aircraft in total” had been subject to the searches, which she has described as “grossly disturbing” and “offensive”.

“We became aware of that yesterday through advice from our post in Doha,” she said.

Payne added that other countries also have concerns about the incident that took place on October 2.

The Transport Workers’ Union of New South Wales, whose members service Qatar Airways planes at Sydney Airport, said on Tuesday it was considering industrial action against the carrier for “the brutal attack on the human rights of Australian female airline passengers”.

It was revealed on Sunday that women were removed from a Sydney-bound Qatar Airways flight in Doha on October 2 and forced to undergo invasive inspections after a newborn baby was found abandoned in an airport toilet.

Payne said 18 Australian women on the October 2 flight to Sydney were affected, along with “other foreign nationals”. The AFP news agency reported one French woman on the flight was among them.

Payne did not detail the destinations of the other flights.

The women said they were taken from the plane and subjected to strip searches in an ambulance parked on the tarmac.

Investigation underway

Qatar’s prime minister has ordered an investigation into the incident, the government’s communications office told Reuters news agency in a statement on Tuesday.

The newborn, a baby girl, was found in a plastic bag in a rubbish bin in “what appeared to be a shocking and appalling attempt to kill her,” the statement said, adding the action was an “egregious and life-threatening violation of the law”.

Hamad International airport in Doha is a transit hub for global flights [File: Deepa Babington/Reuters]

Payne said Australia had registered its “serious concern” about the treatment of the women.

“Other countries affected absolutely share Australia’s views and the strength of Australia’s views,” said Frances Adamson, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. “This is not by any standard normal behaviour and the Qataris recognise that and are appalled by it, do not want it to happen again.”

Australia was alerted to the incident by a female Australian diplomat who was on the flight and was “shocked at what happened”, Adamson said. The diplomat was not searched.

“The Qatari investigation is to determine which laws might have been violated, any individuals responsible and recommend disciplinary and prosecutorial action where appropriate,” a source with knowledge of the investigation told Reuters.

Doha’s Hamad International airport previously confirmed a broad outline of events, without providing details of the procedures, or the number of women and flights involved.

It also launched an appeal on Sunday for the child’s mother to come forward, saying the baby remains unidentified but is “safe under the professional care of medical and social workers”.

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