- Last year several women were forced off a plane in Doha and given invasive physical exams after a baby was found in a bathroom.
- They're now preparing to sue authorities and its flagship airline.
- In a letter, some of them said the "violation and humiliation" made them feel like rape victims.
A group of women who say they were forced off a Qatar Airways flight and forcibly given internal exams after a baby was found in an airport bathroom last year thought they were being kidnapped and compared the trauma to that of a rape victim, according to a letter obtained by Insider.
The women, who were on board the same October 2, 2020, flight from Hamad International Airport in Doha to Sydney, Australia, said they were taken off the plane in Doha and brought to a waiting room, their lawyer Damian Sturzaker told Insider.
Sturzaker is representing a total of seven women preparing to sue Qatar Airways, Hamad International Airport, and the Qatar Civil Aviation Authority over the forced examinations. The women who made the allegations above are part of that group.
Some of Sturzaker's clients were taken into ambulances and "physically assaulted," the lawyer said.
Sturzaker said he believes that women who appeared be of childbearing age were the ones targeted for the physical examinations.
"Some of the younger women were subjected to an incredibly invasive gynecological examination," Sturzaker wrote in an October 29, 2021, letter to Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker. Insider has reviewed a copy of the letter.
Some of the women said they were told to take off their underwear to be searched, it said. It noted that the women had slightly different experiences, and that some had their stomachs touched and some had "internal examinations."
A woman who was "believed to be a nurse" did the examinations, and a "male doctor was also present," the letter said.
The ambulances' windows were not blacked out and some of the women could see armed male guards outside, the letter added.
"All the examinations were non-consensual," it said.
In the letter, Sturzaker said some of his clients had told Australian police that "they outright feared for their lives and expected to be shot."
"Many were under the impression they were being kidnapped and that a terrorist attack was occurring," the letter said.
Some of the women "compared the violation and humiliation as being a victim of rape," it said.
A 'traumatic episode'
Sturzaker told Insider that the women he represents went through a "traumatic episode" and are still, over a year later, experiencing "ongoing effects."
Some of them have struggled with work since the incident, he said.
And he said almost all of them have been left with a "very high level of anxiety concerning the sort of ever traveling by air" — including one woman who needs to travel to Europe for medical treatment.
Qatar's government admitted last October that authorities had been "examining a number of female passengers," and that "standard procedures were violated," The New York Times reported. Qatar's prime minister also apologized, calling the searches "unacceptable."
Sturzaker is representing six Australian women who were on the same flight to Sydney, and one British woman who said she was on a different flight out of Doha and also forcibly examined.
Women on at least eight other flights out of Qatar that day were also taken off their flights, and it is believed that some of them were examined, Sturzaker told Insider. The total number of women affected is unclear.
Qatari officials said in November 2020 that they found the abandoned baby's mother, identifying her only as an Asian woman who fled Qatar after leaving the baby behind. It is unclear what has happened to the baby since.
Sturzaker is preparing to file the lawsuit in Australia against Qatar Airways, Hamad International Airport, and the Qatar Civil Aviation Authority in the coming weeks. The airport, airline, and aviation authority are all wholly owned by the state of Qatar.
He told Insider that his clients didn't originally plan to file a lawsuit — it "wasn't our first preference" — but their attempts to contact authorities to talk about what happened and ensure it doesn't happen to other women had been ignored.
In his letter to Qatar Airways, Sturzaker wrote that the women wanted to have a "respectful dialogue between all parties involved."
They had wanted "a dialogue about how we can change a situation where an incident like this could never occurred again," and for Qatar to "examine methods of improving their human rights approach," Sturzaker told Insider.
But Qatar Airways declined their request, with general counsel Krishan Sinnadurai responding in a November 1 letter seen by Insider: "Your request that Qatar Airways Q.C.S.C. (Qatar Airways) engages in dialogue and/or mediation regarding the matters raised in the letter is respectfully declined on the basis that a claim against Qatar Airways has no merit."
Saad Al-Mahmood, Qatar's ambassador in Australia, also wrote to Sturzaker in a letter seen by Insider that the claims were "under consideration" without giving more specifics.
Qatar Airways and Embassy of the State of Qatar in Canberra, Australia, did not respond to Insider's requests for comment for this story.