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Thai immigration made poor choices

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Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is greeted by Thai immigration authorities at a hotel inside Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019. REUTERS

A Saudi teenager took “running away from home” to a new level on Sunday when she showed up at Suvarnabhumi airport. What happened next, however, turned into unpleasant farce, with Thailand as villain.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, who is 18 and legally an adult, told immigration she was in transit, on her way to Australia, and showed her visa and documents. Airport immigration unbelievably detained her, and forced her to face Saudi embassy officials, who are acting as agents of her allegedly abusive family.

What followed, continuing into Tuesday and now Wednesday, can only be described as hysteria. Involved in her case, a front-page story around the world, were: the United Nations, major human rights groups, a multi-thousand tweetstorm on social media, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the high-profile chief of the Immigration Bureau Division (IB), Pol Lt Gen Surachate Hakparn.

The crux of the series of agitated confrontations resulted in a decidedly unpleasant truth. In a case without crime, Pol Lt Gen Surachate and his IB officers accepted one of the most hateful declarations of our day: that a Saudi woman “belongs” to her family or a designated male guardian or both. Saudi diplomats were allowed access to Suvarnabhumi’s inner areas in order to confront Ms Qunun, who didn’t trust them or want to talk with them.

This is why Thailand now is once again getting loads of foreign publicity as an unfriendly nation. The IB enabled Saudi embassy staff and Kuwait Airlines workers to keep Ms Qunun in the airport. Their aim was to get her aboard a flight back to Kuwait, her departure spot. Clearly, they intended to use force.

It is despicable that Saudi Arabia considers all women as chattel who have few rights – including every sort of travel – unless their guardian approves. It is unacceptable that high-ranking Thai officials including the IB commander go along with this dreadful situation. After Monday’s many hours of drama, Pol Lt Gen Surachate announced he had changed his mind. Instead of allowing Ms Qunun to proceed on her journey, however, he made Ms Qunun stay in Thailand, and placed her temporarily under UNHCR’s care while the agency processes the case. In short, he refused to allow her to depart on a flight to Australia with an Australian visa.

The case is reminiscent, if not precisely the same, as that of Hakeem al-Araibi of Bahrain. An accepted asylum-seeker in Australia, he was detained at Suvarnabhumi on a very wonky Interpol red notice, which was in fact cancelled within hours. His alleged crime is entirely political and in any case there is strong evidence of his innocence. But Thailand has held him in prison since late November. His extradition case is in the courts, but Thailand already has its black eye of bad publicity.

The case of Ms Qunun is worse, in that there is not even an invented crime. It may be illegal in Saudi Arabia for an 18-year-old woman to walk away from her family. It may be actionable if she rejects her family’s religion. And it may be against the law in the Saudi kingdom for a bright, voting-age woman to travel to another country.

None of those are offences in Thailand, let alone reason to physically put the woman into a situation where she could be harmed and forced to do something against her will. Pol Lt Gen Surachate and officers acted poorly, and violated both the Saudi woman’s rights and their own country’s reputation.

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