Australia praises Thai action on Saudi runaway

Australia praises Thai action on Saudi runaway

Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne addresses media in Bangkok on Thursday. (AP photo)
Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne addresses media in Bangkok on Thursday. (AP photo)

Australia's foreign minister praised Thailand on Thursday for its handling of a young Saudi woman who fled her family to seek asylum in Australia, but also reminded it of continuing concern about a Bahraini football player granted asylum in Australia who remains in Thai detention.

Marise Payne met with senior Thai officials in Bangkok a day after Australia announced it would assess the request for asylum by 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, who was stopped Saturday at a Bangkok airport on her way to Australia and her passport seized. She said she was fleeing abuse by her family.

Ms Payne told reporters that Australia's review of Ms Qunun's case is already underway.

She quashed speculation that Ms Qunun might accompany her back to Australia, ''because there are steps which are required in the process which Australia, and any other country considering such a matter, would have to go through".

Confined to an airport transit hotel, Ms Qunun conducted an online appeal for help, garnering tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and enough public and diplomatic support to convince Thai officials to admit her temporarily under the protection of UN officials. The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees quickly deemed her a legitimate refugee.

Ms Qunun's case has highlighted the cause of women's rights in Saudi Arabia. Several female Saudis fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home. Human rights activists say many similar cases have gone unreported.

She has attracted interest worldwide, particularly in Australia. In downtown Sydney on Thursday, four women dressed in jeans and calling themselves the Secret Sisterhood held a topless protest outside the building housing the Saudi Consulate, calling on Australia to grant Ms Qunun residency.

Ms Qunun's father arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday, but his daughter refused to meet with him. Thailand Immigration chief Pol Lt Gen Surachate Hakparn said the father, whose name has not been released, denied physically abusing Ms Qunun or trying to force her into an arranged marriage, which were among the reasons she gave for her flight.

Pol Lt Gen Surachate said Ms Qunun's father wanted his daughter back but respected her decision. Pol Lt Gen Surachate described the father as being a governor in Saudi Arabia.

''He has 10 children. He said the daughter might feel neglected sometimes,'' Pol Lt Gen Surachate said.

Ms Payne was also asked by reporters about the case of Hakeem al-Araibi, a 25-year-old former member of Bahrain's national team, who was granted refugee status in Australia in 2017 after fleeing his homeland, where he said he was persecuted and tortured.

He was arrested while on holiday in Thailand last November due to an Interpol notice in which Bahrain sought his custody after he was sentenced in absentia in 2014 to 10 years in prison for allegedly vandalising a police station, a charge he denies. Bahrain is seeking his extradition.

She said she raised Australia's concerns about the case with Thailand's deputy prime minister and foreign minister.

''The Thai government is most certainly aware of the importance of this matter to Australia,'' she said. ''I do note that there are legal proceedings underway in relation to Mr al-Araibi, and Australia will continue to be in very close contact with Thai authorities in relation to this.''

Araibi, who now plays for Melbourne's Pascoe Vale Football Club, has been publicly critical of the Bahrain royal family's alleged involvement in sports scandals, which puts him at risk of punishment by the Bahraini government.

Araibi has said he was blindfolded and had his legs beaten while he was held in Bahrain in 2012. He said he believed he was targeted for arrest because of his Shiite faith and because his brother was politically active. Bahrain has a Shiite majority but is ruled by a Sunni monarchy, and has a reputation for harsh repression since its failed ''Arab Spring'' uprising in 2011.

Craig Foster, a former Australian national player, held a news conference Thursday in Sydney to issue a joint call for Araibi's release with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Sydney-based Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights.

After commending Fifa, football's world governing body, and Australia's Football Federation for supporting Araibi's release, Mr Foster criticised the Asian Football Confederation and its head, Salman al-Khalifa of Bahrain.

''Sheikh Salman is obligated [by Fifa rules] to support Hakeem. He is obligated to do everything in his power to advocate, both privately and publicly, and to use the immense leverage that football has, with the Bahrain government, his own government, he's a Bahrainian national, and also with the Thai government to release Hakeem. The silence of the Asian Football Confederation is not just confounding, it's absolutely disgraceful,'' he said.

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