The Saudi teenager who fled to Thailand saying she feared her family would kill her has tweeted a video purporting to show a Kingdom official saying ‘they should have taken her phone’ because of the global social media attention her case has sparked.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, ran away from a family trip to Kuwait five days ago, and flew to Bangkok in the hope of reaching Australia, where she is now being assessed by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
Sharing the video on Twitter, Ms Al-Qunun praised social media for helping her avoid deportation, after she gained 94,000 followers in just a few days and has has a swell of support online.
‘Twitter account has changed the game against what he wished for me,’ she wrote regarding the comments allegedly made in the video by Abdulilah al-Shouaibi, charge d’affaires at Bangkok’s Saudi embassy.
The video allegedly shows al-Shouaibi speaking to his translator during a meeting with Thai officials about Ms Al-Qunun.
According to Ms Al-Qunun, he says: ‘She opened a Twitter account and her followers grew to 45,000 within one day.
‘It would have been better if they confiscated her phone instead of her passport because Twitter changed everything’.
Ms Al-Qunun’s father and brother have since arrived in Bangkok and demanded to see her, but have been told they will need to wait for the UNHCR’s approval before they are allowed to see her, Thailand’s immigration chief Surachate Hakpan said.
Meanwhile, Australia has said it would ‘carefully consider’ a humanitarian visa application made by the Saudi teenager, once the UNHCR’s assessment of whether she can claim refugee status is completed.
‘The Australian Government is pleased that Ms Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun is having her claim for protection assessed (by the UN),’ a Department of Home Affairs official said.
‘Any application by Ms Al-Qunun for a humanitarian visa will be carefully considered once the UNHCR process has concluded.’
Yesterday, one of Ms Al-Qunun’s friends tweeted that her three-month Australian tourist visa has been cancelled. The Australian government has neither confirmed nor explained if or why this may have happened.
Earlier today, they posted a screen-grab from a Whatsapp conversation with Ms Al-Qunun, in which she said: ‘I’m happy because I’m out the airport now but I’m worried because my dad is here.’
The teenager fears retaliation from her family after she renounced Islam – and lawyers say she ‘could be jailed for many years and be subject to human rights violations and torture’ for ‘insulting’ her country and religion.
On Monday, Rahda Stirling, a Dubai-based human rights lawyer said in a statement: ‘She has violated Saudi laws in seeking to travel without the permission of her male guardian and has now further violated a number of laws and outraged the regime.
‘There are reports that she is receiving death threats and that Saudi men are calling for her to be hanged as an example to other would be ‘rebels’.’
The UNHCR said today it continues to investigate Rahaf’s case, but activists have voiced concern about what may happen if her father and brother are allowed to meet with her.
‘The father is now here in Thailand and that’s a source of concern,’ Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, told Reuters.
‘We have no idea what he is going to do … whether he will try to find out where she is and go harass her. We don’t know whether he is going to try to get the embassy to do that.’
Lawmakers and activists in Australia and Britain urged their governments to grant asylum to Qunun, who was finally allowed by Thailand to enter the country late on Monday, after nearly 48 hours stranded at Bangkok airport under threat of being expelled.
The teenager was due to have been marched onto a flight back to Kuwait on Sunday morning but, fearing her family would kill her, she refused to board the plane and posted videos and photos on Twitter of her barricading her hotel door with a table, mattresses and a chair.
After being allowed to meet with representatives from UNHCR, she is now staying in a Bangkok hotel while the UN agency processes her application for refugee status, before she can seek asylum in a third country.
‘It could take several days to process the case and determine next steps,’ UNHCR’s Thailand representative Giuseppe de Vincentiis said in a statement.
‘We are very grateful that the Thai authorities did not send back (Qunun) against her will and are extending protection to her,’ he said.
The case has drawn new global attention to Saudi Arabia’s strict social rules, including a requirement that women have the permission of a male ‘guardian’ to travel, which rights groups say can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families.
It comes at a time when Riyadh is facing unusually intense scrutiny from its Western allies over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.
Ms Al-Qunun’s plight unfolded on social media, drawing support from around the world, which convinced Thai authorities to back down from sending her back to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Thailand denied reports that Riyadh had requested her extradition.
‘The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has not asked for her extradition. The embassy considers this issue a family matter,’ the embassy said in a post on Twitter.
The Saudi embassy in Bangkok has, however, acknowledged that the woman’s father had previously contacted them for ‘help’ to bring her back.
The Thai immigration chief said on Monday the embassy had alerted Thai authorities to the case, and said that the woman had run away from her parents and they feared for her safety.
Saudi culture and guardianship policy requires women to have permission from a male relative to work, travel, marry, and even get some medical treatment. The deeply conservative Muslim country lifted a ban on women drivers last year.
The incident comes as Saudi Arabia faces intense scrutiny over the shocking murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year, which has renewed criticism of the kingdom’s rights record.