Saudi woman fleeing family, seeking asylum remains holed up in Thai airport hotel

/ cbs/AFP

An 18-year-old Saudi woman who said she was fleeing her abusive family and was desperately seeking asylum barricaded herself inside her hotel room at a Bangkok, Thailand airport to keep from being put on a plane to Kuwait City, where her family was waiting, Human Rights Watch said Monday. The group's deputy Asia Director, Phil Robertson, tweeted that the plane had left and Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun wasn't on it:

#Kuwait Air flight KU412 has now departed #Bangkok without #Rahaf on board, so this is an important victory for her, & a real tribute to her courage. She is demanding #UNHCR be allowed to see her, but so far #Thailand is not agreeing to that. #SaveRahaf @Refugees @UNHCRThailand pic.twitter.com/o6ZiRxhZry

— Phil Robertson (@Reaproy) January 7, 2019

The UNHCR is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, also known as the U.N. Refugee Agency.

Earlier, Robertson tweeted a brief video of her in her room, saying simply, " I'm not leaving my room until I see UNHCR. I want asylum."

Video from @rahaf84427714 just sent from her hotel room at the #Bangkok airport. She has barricaded herself in the room & says she will not leave until she is able to see #UNHCR. Why is #Thailand not letting @Refugees see her for refugee status determination? @hrw #SaveRahaf pic.twitter.com/3lb2NDRsVG

— Phil Robertson (@Reaproy) January 7, 2019

Robertson told CBS News the Thai government isn't allowing the UNHCR team at the airport to see Qunun to determine whether she has a reasonable case for seeking refugee status.

Robertson also said there's been clear coordination between the Thai government and the Saudis on her.

Later, Robertson tweeted that Thai lawyers filed an injunction at Bangkok criminal court seeking "to prevent the deportation of #Rahaf to #Kuwait. Court should consider quickly because time is short & she faces dire peril if sent back from #Thailand. Will Thailand respect rule of law? #SaveRahaf."

The incident comes against the backdrop of intense scrutiny of Saudi Arabia over its investigation and handling of the shocking murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year, which has renewed criticism of the kingdom's human rights record.

Qunun told AFP she ran away from her family while travelling in Kuwait because they subjected her to physical and psychological abuse.

She said she had planned to travel to Australia and seek asylum there, and feared she would be killed if she was repatriated by Thai immigration officials, who stopped her during transit on Sunday.

Qunun said she was stopped by Saudi and Kuwaiti officials when she arrived at the Thai capital's Suvarnabhumi airport and her travel document was forcibly taken from her, a claim backed by Human Rights Watch.

"I ask the… government of Thailand… to stop my deportation to Kuwait," she said on Twitter. "I ask the police in Thailand to start my asylum process."

Shortly before the scheduled departure late Monday morning local time, Qunun posted a plea for people within "the transit area in Bangkok to protest against deporting me".

"Please I need u all," she wrote. "I'm shouting out for help of humanity."

– Barricaded in room –

In a sign of growing desperation during the night, Qunun posted video of her barricading her hotel room door with furniture.

If sent back, she said she would likely be imprisoned, and is "sure 100 percent" her family will kill her, she told AFP.

"Given Saudi Arabia's long track record of looking the other way in so-called honor violence incidents, her worry that she could be killed if returned cannot be ignored," Robertson told AFP.

The UNHCR said asylum seekers cannot be returned to their country of origin if their life is under threat.

The ultra-conservative Saudi kingdom has long been criticized for imposing some of the world's toughest restrictions on women.

That includes a guardianship system that allows men to exercise arbitrary authority to make decisions on behalf of their female relatives.

In addition to facing punishment for "moral" crimes, women can become the target of "honor killings" at the hands of their families, activists say.

Abdulilah al-Shouaibi, charge d'affaires at the Saudi embassy in Bangkok, acknowledged in an interview with Saudi-owned channel Rotana Khalijial that the woman's father had contacted the diplomatic mission for "help" to bring her back.

But he denied that her passport had been seized and that embassy officials were present inside the airport.

Saudi Arabia has come under fierce criticism following the murder of dissident journalist Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul consulate on October 2 — a case that stunned the world.

Another Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, was stopped in transit in the Philippines in April 2017 when she attempted to flee her family.

First published on January 7, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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