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Outcry after examination of women at Qatar airport

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The invasive searches held up departure of one Qatar Airways flight to Australia for four hours. AFP

Outcry after examination of women at Qatar airport

Female passengers flying from Qatar were subjected to invasive searches after a premature baby was found abandoned in an airport bathroom, in procedures the Australian government on Monday described as “grossly disturbing” and “offensive”.

A number of women – including from Australia – were removed from their flight and examined for signs of childbirth after the baby was found in a bathroom at Hamad International in the Qatari capital.

Australia’s government on Monday condemned the October 2 incident, which only came to light after Australian passengers spoke out, and said concerns had been lodged with Qatar.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said: “This is a grossly, grossly disturbing, offensive, concerning set of events. It is not something that I have ever heard of occurring in my life.

“We have made our concerns very clear to the Qatari authorities at this point,” she said, adding that the matter had also been referred to Australian Federal Police.

A source in Doha briefed on the incident told AFP that officials “were forcing women to undergo invasive body searches – basically forced Pap smears”, an internal examination of the cervix.

Passenger Wolfgang Babeck told AFP women returned to his flight from Doha to Sydney in a “shell-shocked” state, having been told to remove clothing from the lower half of their bodies for an examination by a female doctor.

“All of them were upset, some were angry, one was crying, but basically nobody could believe what happened,” the commercial lawyer said, adding he thought the incident could be “a violation of international law”.

That flight, Qatar Airways’ QR908 to Sydney, was four hours late departing Doha as a result, according to air traffic website Flightradar24. It is not clear how many flights were involved.

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

The statement said: “Medical professionals expressed concern to officials about the health and welfare of a mother who had just given birth and requested she be located prior to departing.

“Individuals who had access to the specific area of the airport where the newborn infant was found were asked to assist in the query.”

It is understood that in addition to the Australians, one French woman was also affected, according to one official.

Some of the group received assistance and mental health support while spending the last two weeks in quarantine, under rules put in place by Australian authorities to contain the spread of coronavirus.

A report from the Qatari authorities about the incident is “imminent” according to Payne, who admitted Australian officials were made aware of the situation by passengers “at the time of the flight”.

The incident could damage Qatar’s reputation as it prepares to host tens of thousands of foreign visitors for the 2022 football world cup.

Qatar practices a strict form of Islamic law, with stiff penalties applied to women who fall pregnant or bear children outside marriage.

Doha airport on Sunday launched an appeal for the child’s mother to come forward, suggesting that the checks undertaken at the time were inconclusive.

“The newborn infant remains unidentified, but is safe under the professional care of medical and social workers,” it said in its statement, and requested that anyone with information come forward.

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