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Passengers horrified after invasive strip searches before Qatar-Australia flight

Qatar Airways plane [Julian Herzog/Wikipedia]
Qatar Airways plane, 31 March 2017 [Julian Herzog/Wikipedia]

Women on a Qatar Airways flight to Sydney, Australia were pulled off the aircraft after a newborn baby was found abandoned in a toilet in Hamad International Airport in Doha. Airport security officials boarded the plane and removed nine women.

According to eyewitness reports the passengers were taken to a darkened underground room that has been likened to a car park, where every woman but one was subjected to an invasive physical examination in the back of an ambulance to determine whether any of them had recently given birth. One man on board the flight told Australia's ABC News that many of the women were visibly upset on their return to the aircraft.

"One of them was in tears, a younger woman, and people couldn't believe what had happened," Wolfgang Babeck told ABC. "They told me they had to take their underwear off or their clothes from the bottom and then they were inspected to see whether they had given birth."

The flight was reportedly delayed by four hours as the women were examined. Australia's Seven Network News claimed that the women "had their genitals invasively examined, without their consent" and none were informed of the existence of the abandoned baby beforehand.

READ: Syria to begin regular flights to Qatar despite no diplomatic ties

"Every hour," explained passenger Kim Mills, "the captain or the co-pilot came on and apologised for the delay, saying that he was waiting for permission to taxi. I just went back to sleep. I was finally woken, I guess it was three hours later, by the head steward actually shaking me awake. He said I had to get my passport and leave the plane."

She described being led off the plane believing it to be a routine check. "Finally, they took me downstairs in a lift which felt like you were going down to the bottom of the airport. And then I came out of the lift and there were two officers, and they started walking towards big glass sliding doors. I thought, what are they doing with me, where are they taking me? All of these things are going through my head. I still didn't know the reason."

She looked through the glass door and noticed they had at least two ambulances lined up but they were side-door ambulances… I could sort of see someone dressed in surgical clothes, surgical gear, and I thought it must be something to do with coronavirus." She was the only one of the nine women to avoid the ordeal because, she believed, she is in her 60s.

After the physical examinations took place, the women were apparently taken to an interview room and interrogated about their movements.

"My legs were just wobbling," said Mills. "I was just so pleased to be back on the plane because I was terrified they were going to take me away somewhere… Why didn't they explain to us what was going on? It was horrible, not knowing, to me that was one of the worst parts of it."

READ: Qatar Airways got $1.95bn government lifeline after losses widened

Qatar Airways claimed that its staff didn't know anything about the situation and were unaware that airport security intended to force the women to endure such an examination. The cabin crew, it said, were "absolutely horrified".

Hamad International Airport authorities did not deny the incident took place, but confirmed that a newborn baby had been discovered in the toilet, and officials were "concerned for the mother's welfare". A spokesperson said: "Individuals who had access to the specific area of the airport where the newborn infant was found were asked to assist in the inquiry."

The Australian government has complained about the incident to the Qatari Ambassador.

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