Women lose bid to sue Qatar Airways over invasive exams

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A Qatar Airways jet on a runwayImage source, Qatar Airways

Five Australian women who were strip-searched and invasively examined at Doha airport have failed in their bid to sue Qatar Airways.

They and other women were ordered off a flight and checked for whether they had given birth after a baby was found abandoned in an airport bin in 2020.

The incident sparked public outrage and it was condemned by several nations.

An Australian court found the state-owned airline was immune from foreign prosecution.

The five women filed a claim in the Federal Court of Australia in 2021, seeking damages over the alleged “unlawful physical contact” and false imprisonment, which had caused mental health impacts including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Other passengers – including from the UK and New Zealand – were not part of the lawsuit.

But on Wednesday, Justice John Halley found that the laws governing global travel meant Qatar Airways – and the country’s aviation regulator – could not be sued.

He pointed to a multilateral treaty called the Montreal Convention which is used to establish airline liability in the event of death or injury to passengers.

He also found that the airline’s staff could not have influenced the actions of Qatari police who removed the women from the flight, nor the nurses who examined them in ambulances on the tarmac.

However Justice Halley said the women could pursue their claim against a subsidiary of Qatar Airlines called Matar, which is contracted to run Hamad International Airport.

They will be able to argue they were owed a duty of care by Matar employees, who failed to prevent the invasive searches.

The women have previously told the BBC they did not consent to the examinations and were not given explanations for what was happening to them.

“I felt like I had been raped,” said British grandmother Mandy, who asked to withhold her surname.

Another said she thought she was being kidnapped and held hostage.

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At the time, Qatari officials said the abandoned baby was being cared for, and Prime Minister Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al Thani tweeted: “We regret the unacceptable treatment of the female passengers… What took place does not reflect Qatar’s laws or values.”

The Gulf launched a criminal prosecution which led to a suspended jail term for an airport official.

But lawyer Damian Sturzaker in 2021 told the BBC the women were suing because of a perceived lack of action from Doha.

They wanted a formal apology from Qatar and for the airport to change its procedures to make sure the incident does not happen again.

“By speaking up, we want to ensure that no woman is ever subjected to the demoralising, horrendous treatment we were subjected to,” one of the women told the BBC.

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