LONDON: Australian politicians from across the political spectrum have withdrawn from a formal dinner hosted by Qatar’s ambassador to Canberra, over an incident at Doha airport earlier this month that saw female passengers removed from a flight to Sydney and strip-searched by local authorities.
Eighteen women, including 13 Australians, were removed without warning or explanation from a Qatar Airways flight on Oct. 2 and taken to be medically examined in ambulances in a carpark as staff sought to locate the mother of an infant found abandoned in an airport bathroom.
The passengers were reportedly told to remove their underwear as part of the examination to check if any of them had recently given birth.
Passengers from 10 other flights were also affected, according to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The politicians who turned down the invitation to dine with Qatari Ambassador Saad Al-Mahmood, all members of the Australian Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, had been due at his residence on Nov. 9.
“Due to the mistreatment of Australian women at Doha airport, we decline this invitation,” the committee’s Liberal Chair Andrew Hastie and Labor Deputy Anthony Byrne said in a joint statement.
“We fully anticipate that the Qatari government will investigate the mistreatment of Australian citizens and provide a detailed report to the Australian government.”
The opposition Labor Party also criticized the Australian government for not doing enough to apply pressure on Doha.
Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus said the events were a breach of international human rights law.
Senate Leader Penny Wong said: “I simply cannot fathom why our foreign minister didn’t pick up the phone when she heard about this and express the strongest possible protest, both to demonstrate how important it was for us, for it to have a reasonable response but also to register a protest.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he had relayed his government’s “strong disapproval and outrage” at what had happened to the Qatari government.
He added that he will “continue to take a very strident approach” in responding to the “appalling” events.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne telephoned Al-Mahmood on Oct. 6 to express her concern at the events in Doha, and to request a full report into the matter.
Relations between the two states are complicated by Australia’s reliance on Qatar as a trade partner — its second biggest in the Middle East and North Africa, worth $2.13 billion in 2019. Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund has also invested over $3 billion in the country.
Morrison said Qatar Airways was performing a vital role in carrying about 15 percent of all Australians home after being stranded during the coronavirus pandemic.
Australia also requires Qatar’s cooperation in the detention of a former Afghan soldier, currently being held in Doha and wanted for the murders of three Australian servicemen in 2012.
The Qatari government has said it regretted “any distress” caused by the incident, which it claimed was “urgently decided” as necessary after the infant was found in a rubbish bin.