Saudi rights official dismisses Khashoggi inquiry as foreign interference

FILE PHOTO: Turkish police forensic experts and plainclothes police officers stand at the entrance of a villa in the Samanli village of the Termal district in the northwestern province of Yalova, Turkey, November 26, 2018, as police search inside in relation to the investigation into the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. REUTERS/Osman Orsal/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – The head of the state-backed Saudi human rights commission dismissed an international investigation into the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as interference on Thursday, and said everyone accused was already facing justice in the kingdom.

Bandar bin Mohammed al-Aiban made the comments as Turkey’s Justice Ministry said Interpol had issued red notices – asking police worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest a person pending extradition – for 20 people regarding Khashoggi’s death.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, provoking an international outcry.

In his remarks, the first substantive comments on the case by Saudi Arabia at a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council, Aiban said those on trial for what he described both as an “unfortunate accident” and a “heinous crime” had attended three hearings so far with their lawyers present. He gave no names or other details.

Three dozen Western countries, including all 28 European Union members, called on the kingdom last week to cooperate with a U.N.-led investigation.

But Aiban said Saudi Arabia would not accept what he termed as foreign interference in its domestic affairs and judicial system.

“Justice in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia operates pursuant to international law and it does so in all transparency,” Aiban told the Geneva forum during a review of Saudi Arabia’s rights record.

“We are indeed horrified by what has happened pursuant to this unfortunate accident and we have taken those measures required for us to resolve this heinous crime,” added Aiban, who headed the official Saudi delegation at the hearing.

The Turkish Justice Ministry said it had requested Interpol red notices for 18 people on Nov. 15 and for two more on Dec. 21 without identifying the individuals. The notices were issued on March 1, it said.

Interpol declined to comment.

Ankara has repeatedly pressed Riyadh to reveal more details of the killing. It said earlier on Thursday that Saudi authorities should disclose the names of defendants and the charges they face if it wanted to avoid questions over the “sincerity of judicial proceedings in the kingdom”.

It also criticized Aiban’s rejection of any foreign investigation. “We find it difficult to understand why an official working in the area of human rights would possibly be unsettled by efforts to shed light on all aspects of the Khashoggi murder,” the Turkish presidency said.

Riyadh has rejected accusations by the CIA and some Western countries that the crown prince ordered the killing.

After making numerous contradictory statements, it said Khashoggi was killed after negotiations to persuade him to return to Saudi Arabia failed – and later that 11 Saudis had been indicted and referred for trial over the case, without identifying them.

The public prosecutor is seeking the death penalty for five of them.

The killing has severely strained ties between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, although Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has good ties with the Saudi monarch, King Salman.

(Reporting by Tom Miles, Stephanie Nebehay and Orhan Coskun, Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Writing by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Andrew Heavens and Frances Kerry)

U.S. senators say Saudi crown prince has gone ‘full gangster’

Retired four-star Army General John Abizaid testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing to be U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Retired Army General John Abizaid, U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia, defended the U.S.-Saudi relationship on Wednesday as lawmakers accused the kingdom of a litany of misdeeds and criticized its crown prince as going “full gangster.”

Senators at Abizaid’s confirmation hearing, Trump’s fellow Republicans as well as Democrats, condemned the kingdom’s conduct in the civil war in Yemen, heavy-handed diplomacy and rights abuses including torturing women’s rights activists and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Abizaid called for accountability for the murder of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, and support for human rights, but repeatedly stressed the importance of Washington-Riyadh ties.

Despite increasing tension between the two countries, the United States has not had an ambassador there since Trump became president in January 2017.

“In the long run, we need a strong and mature partnership with Saudi Arabia,” Abizaid told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It is in our interests to make sure that the relationship is sound.”

Abizaid, a retired four-star Army general, led U.S. Central Command during the Iraq war. Expected to easily win Senate confirmation, he was praised by senators from both parties at the hearing.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of the Riyadh government, was killed at a Saudi consulate in Turkey in October. His death fueled simmering discontent in Washington over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and heavy civilian casualties in Yemen’s civil war, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

The House of Representatives has passed a war powers resolution that would end all U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition, but Abizaid said the Trump administration believes strongly that U.S. support should continue.

“Doing so bolsters the self-defense capabilities of our partners and reduces the risk of harm to civilians,” Abizaid said.

‘FULL GANGSTER’

The measure passed the Senate last year, but must go through the chamber again this year to be sent to the White House, where Trump is expected to issue a veto. However, its support in Congress is considered a strong rebuke of Riyadh.

Lawmakers have been strongly critical of Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful Saudi crown prince. Some blame him for Khashoggi’s killing and other human rights abuses.

Eleven suspects have been indicted in Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s murder, and last month a top Saudi official rejected accusations that the crown prince ordered the killing.

Republican Senator Jim Risch, the committee’s chairman, said Washington needed to send a strong message to Saudi Arabia about actions that he said are complicating the relationship.

“It’s going to have to be addressed by the Saudis and by the Crown Prince,” Risch said.

“The Crown Prince has launched Saudi Arabia into a devastating war in Yemen, isolated Qatar, threatening Gulf cooperation and coordination against threats from Iran and regional terrorist groups, detained and tortured members of his own family and effectively hoodwinked and intimidated the Lebanese prime minister,” said Senator Bob Menendez, the committee’s top Democrat.

As Abizaid’s hearing continued, at least two Republicans said bin Salman had gone “full gangster.”

One, Republican Marco Rubio, cited a long list of actions including the imprisonment of women’s rights activists and the 2017 detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri.

Abizaid said in prepared remarks that the Islamic State militant group has been “nearly vanquished on the ground,” but remains a “potent threat” to the United States and its allies.

While contradicted by some U.S. military and intelligence officials, Trump has declared that Islamic State has been driven out of all its territory since announcing in December that he would withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. He claimed that U.S.-led forces had succeeded in their mission to defeat the militant group.

Since then, Trump has decided to leave hundreds of U.S. troops in the country over the longer run.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Saudi Arabia strips Osama bin Laden’s son of citizenship; U.S. offers million dollar reward

A photograph circulated by the U.S. State Department’s Twitter account to announce a $1 million USD reward for al Qaeda key leader Hamza bin Laden, son of Osama bin Laden, is seen March 1, 2019. State Department/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has stripped citizenship from Hamza bin Laden, the son of slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the interior ministry said in a statement published by the official gazette.

The U.S. State Department said on Thursday it was offering a reward of up to $1 million for information leading “to the identification or location in any country” of Hamza, calling him a key al Qaeda leader.

Hamza, believed to be about 30 years old, was at his father’s side in Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks and spent time with him in Pakistan after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan pushed much of al Qaeda&rsqu’s senior leadership there, according to the Brookings Institution.

Introduced by the organization’s new chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in an audio message in 2015, Hamza provides a younger voice for the group whose aging leaders have struggled to inspire militants around the world galvanized by Islamic State, analysts say.

He has called for acts of terrorism in Western capitals and threatened to take revenge against the United States for his father’s killing, the State Department said in 2017 when it designated him as a global terrorist.

He also threatened to target Americans abroad and urged Saudi tribes to unite with Yemen’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to fight against Saudi Arabia, it said.

Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces who raided his compound in Pakistan in 2011. Hamza was thought to be under house arrest in Iran at the time, and documents recovered from the compound indicated that aides had been trying to reunite him with his father.

The Saudi decision to strip him of his citizenship was made by a royal order in November, according to a statement published in the Um al-Qura official journal.

(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Andrew Heavens)

‘I was like a prisoner’: Saudi sisters trapped in Hong Kong recall beatings

Sisters from Saudi Arabia, who go by aliases Reem and Rawan, are pictured at an office in Hong Kong, China February 23, 2019. REUTERS/Aleksander Solum

By Anne Marie Roantree

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Two sisters from Saudi Arabia who fled the conservative kingdom and have been hiding out in Hong Kong for nearly six months said they did so to escape beatings at the hands of their brothers and father.

The pair, who say they have renounced their Muslim faith, arrived in the Chinese territory from Sri Lanka in September. They say they were prevented from boarding a connecting flight to Australia and were intercepted at the airport by diplomats from Saudi Arabia.

Reuters could not independently verify their story.

Asked about the case, Hong Kong police said they had received a report from “two expatriate women” in September and were investigating, but did not elaborate.

The Saudi consulate in Hong Kong has not responded to repeated requests from Reuters for comment.

The case is the second high-profile example this year of Saudi women seeking to escape their country and spotlights the kingdom’s strict social rules, including a requirement that females seek permission from a male “guardian” to travel.

The sisters, aged 18 and 20, managed to leave Hong Kong airport but consular officials have since revoked their passports, leaving them stranded in the city for nearly six months, their lawyer, Michael Vidler, said.

Vidler, one of the leading activist lawyers in the territory, also confirmed the authenticity of a Twitter account written by the two women describing their plight.

On Saturday, dressed in jeans and wearing sneakers, the softly spoken women described what they said was a repressive and unhappy life at their home in the Saudi capital Riyadh. They said they had adopted the aliases Reem and Rawan, because they fear using their real names could lead to their being traced if granted asylum in a third country.

They posed for pictures but asked their features not be revealed.

Every decision had to be approved by the men in their house, from the clothes they wore to the hairstyle they chose – even the times when they woke and went to sleep, the sisters told Reuters.

“They were like my jailer, like my prison officer. I was like a prisoner,” said the younger sister, Rawan, referring to two brothers aged 24 and 25 as well as her father.

“It was basically modern day slavery. You can’t go out of the house unless someone is with us. Sometimes we will stay for months without even seeing the sun,” the elder sister, Reem, said.

In January, a Saudi woman made global headlines by barricading herself in a Bangkok airport hotel to avoid being sent home to her family. She was later granted asylum in Canada.

“BROTHER BRAINWASHED”

Reem and Rawan said their 10-year-old brother was also encouraged to beat them.

“They brainwashed him,” Rawan said, referring to her older brothers. Although he was only a child, she said she feared her younger brother would become like her older siblings.

The family includes two other sisters, aged five and 12. Reem said she and her sister feel terrible about leaving them, although they “hope their family will get a lesson from this and it might help to change their lives for the better.”

Reem and Rawan decided to escape while on a family holiday in Sri Lanka in September. They had secretly saved around $5,000 since 2016, some of it accumulated by scrimping on items they were given money to buy.

The timing of their escape was carefully planned to coincide with Rawan’s 18th birthday so she could apply for a visitor’s visa to Australia without her parents’ approval.

But what was supposed to be a two-hour stopover in Hong Kong has turned into nearly six months and the sisters are now living in fear that they will be forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia.

They have said they have renounced Islam – a crime punishable by death under the Saudi system of sharia, or Islamic law, although the punishment has not been carried out in recent memory.

The pair say they have changed locations 13 times in Hong Kong, living in hotels, shelters and with individuals who are helping, sometimes staying just one night in a place before moving on to ensure their safety.

Vidler said the Hong Kong Immigration Department told the women their Saudi passports had been invalidated and they could only stay in the city until February 28.

The department has said it does not comment on individual cases.

The sisters have applied for asylum in a third country which they declined to name in a bid keep the information from Saudi authorities and their family.

“We believe that we have the right to live like any other human being,” said Reem, who said she studied English literature in Riyadh and dreams of becoming a writer one day.

Asked what would happen on Feb 28, after which they can no longer legally stay in Hong Kong, the sisters said they had no idea.

“I hope this doesn’t last any longer,” Rawan said.

(Reporting By Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

U.S. will keep investigating journalist Khashoggi’s murder: Pompeo

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the media at the United Nations following a Security Council meeting about the situation in Venezuela in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., January 26, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

By Lesley Wroughton

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – The United States is still probing the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday, as U.S. lawmakers continued to demand stronger U.S. action to punish the perpetrators.

“America is not covering up for a murder,” Pompeo said during a visit to Hungary, adding that the United States would take more action to hold accountable all those responsible for the U.S.-based journalist’s death inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October.

After initially denying his death, Saudi Arabia has confirmed that its agents killed Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of the Saudi government. Riyadh denies its senior leaders were behind the killing.

U.S. lawmakers, Democrats and some of Trump’s fellow Republicans, have sought a strong response by Washington to Khashoggi’s murder and to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

The Trump administration had faced a Feb. 8 deadline to send a report to Congress on who was responsible for Khashoggi’s death and whether the U.S. government would impose sanctions on those behind the killing.

Ahead of the deadline, a group of Republican and Democratic senators on Thursday renewed their push to penalize Saudi Arabia, unveiling legislation to bar some arms sales and impose sanctions.

President Donald Trump has resisted such legislative efforts, viewing weapons sales as an important source of U.S. jobs and standing by Saudi crown prince and Trump’s ally, Mohammed bin Salman. Trump is also reluctant to disturb the strategic relationship with the kingdom, seen as an important regional counterbalance to Iran.

Eleven suspects have been indicted in Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s murder, and on Friday a top Saudi official rejected accusations that the crown prince ordered the killing.

On Friday, a State Department representative said Pompeo had briefed U.S. lawmakers on the murder investigation but gave no other details.

Democratic U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, on Sunday said the required report was not submitted and accused the Trump administration of complicity in covering up the killing.

“This amounts to the Trump administration aiding in the cover-up of a murder,” Kaine said in a statement. “America should never descend to this level of moral bankruptcy.”

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; additional reporting by Joanna Plucinska, Susan Heavey and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)

Saudi Arabia to address abuse of male guardianship system: media reports

FILE PHOTO: Women walk past a poster of Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud during Janadriyah Cultural Festival on the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/File Photo

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia will study how its male guardianship system is being abused, Saudi media reported on Monday, after the flight of an 18-year-old woman to Thailand last month focused global attention on the issue.

Every Saudi woman is assigned a male relative – often a father or husband but sometimes an uncle, brother or even a son – whose approval is needed to marry, obtain a passport and travel abroad.

Rights groups say the arrangement turns women into second-class citizens, depriving them of social and economic freedoms and making them more vulnerable to violence.

Without a codified system of law to go with the texts making up sharia, or Islamic law, the Saudi police and judiciary have long cited social customs in enforcing certain prohibitions on women. Many aspects of guardianship stem from informal practices rather than specific laws.

Saudi public prosecutor Saud al-Mojeb said his office would “spare no efforts in protecting individuals, whether women, children or parents, from unfair treatment by those who abuse guardianship powers,” according to English daily Saudi Gazette.

His office receives only a small number of complaints about guardianship, he added, without providing details.

The government communications office was not immediately available for comment.

Activists say many Saudi women fear that reporting abuse to the police would only further endanger their lives. They have called for an end to guardianship, which has slowly eroded over the years but remains in force.

Some freedoms have been granted under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ended a ban on women driving and eased restrictions on gender mixing, but they have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, including the arrest and alleged torture of women’s rights activists as well as Muslim clerics.

Prince Mohammed indicated last year he favored ending the guardianship system but stopped short of backing its annulment.

The plight of Rahaf Mohammed, who slipped away from her family last month during a holiday in Kuwait and then tweeted calls for help from Bangkok airport, sparked an online campaign that ended with the Thai authorities reversing a decision to send her home and Canada granting her asylum.

Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most gender-segregated nations, is ranked 138 of 144 states in the 2017 Global Gender Gap, a World Economic Forum study on how women fare in economic and political participation, health and education.

(Reporting By Stephen Kalin; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Saudi-backed organization denounces countries for ‘inciting’ women to flee

FILE PHOTO: Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun (C) accompanied by Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland (R) and Saba Abbas, general counsellor of COSTI refugee service agency, arrives at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Ontario, Canada January 12, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio/File Photo

RIYADH (Reuters) – An organization backed by Saudi Arabia accused several foreign countries of inciting young women to reject their families, the first public comments from Riyadh since a woman claiming domestic abuse was granted asylum in Canada over the weekend.

The National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) did not name 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, who grabbed international attention after barricading herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room and appealing for help on Twitter to resist being sent back to her family, which denies any abuse.

But in a statement late on Sunday NSHR head Mufleh al-Qahtani accused unspecified countries and international organizations of pursuing political agendas and “pushing (women) ultimately to be lost and maybe to fall into the arms of brokers and human traffickers”.

While NSHR says it is independent, the U.S. State Department describes it as “government-funded”.

Riyadh’s human rights record has been in the spotlight since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its Istanbul consulate in October. There has also been growing international criticism of the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes in Yemen that have caused heavy civilian casualties including children.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in Riyadh on Monday, said he spoke with Saudi leaders about Yemen, Khashoggi and other human rights issues.

NSHR “was surprised by some countries’ incitement of some Saudi female delinquents to rebel against the values of their families and push them out of the country and seek to receive them under the pretext of granting them asylum,” Qahtani said.

He did not name Canada or Australia, which also considered offering Qunun asylum, or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which granted her refugee status.

Qunun arrived in Toronto on Saturday, wearing a hoodie emblazoned with the word Canada, and a cap bearing the UNHCR logo. Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland welcomed her at the airport, calling her “a very brave new Canadian.”

Canada’s move comes amid tension with Riyadh after Ottawa demanded the immediate release of jailed rights activists last year, prompting Saudi Arabia to expel its ambassador to Canada, recall Saudis living there and freeze new trade.

The case has also drawn attention to Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system, which requires women to have the permission of a male relative to travel, sometimes trapping them as prisoners of abusive families.

Qahtani said Saudi laws forbid mistreatment and allow women to report it, but international rights groups say in practice many Saudi women fear that going to the police would only further endanger their lives.

(Reporting By Stephen Kalin, Editing by William Maclean)

Saudi teen to depart Thailand for Canada asylum-Thai immigration chief

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her country and family, is seen in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. TWITTER/ @rahaf84427714/via REUTERS

By Patpicha Tanakasempipat

BANGKOK (Reuters) – A Saudi woman who fled to Thailand saying she feared her family would kill her has been granted asylum in Canada and is traveling there on Friday, the Thai immigration chief told Reuters.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, will board a Korean Air flight from Bangkok to Seoul on Friday night, immigration chief Surachate Hakpark said, before boarding a connecting flight to Canada.

“Canada has granted her asylum,” Surachate told Reuters. “She’ll leave tonight at 11.15 p.m.

Canadian authorities said they could not confirm that Qunun had been granted asylum in Canada.

“We have nothing new to add on this right now,” a spokesman for Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said.

Qunun arrived in Bangkok on Saturday and was initially denied entry but after a tense 48-hour stand-off at Bangkok airport, some of it barricaded in a transit lounge hotel room, she was allowed to enter the country and has been processed as a refugee by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Qunun has accused her family of abuse and has refused to meet her father and brother who arrived in Bangkok to try to take her back to Saudi Arabia.

Her case has drawn 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.

Qunun’s plight has emerged 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 Instanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.

Australia had said on Wednesday that it was considering taking in Qunun.

(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in OTTAWA, Editing by William Maclean)

Australia says no timeframe to decide case of Saudi teen asylum seeker

Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne speaks during a news conference at Australian Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

By Panu Wongcha-um and Patpicha Tanakasempipat

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Thursday there was no timeframe for the assessment of the case of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who fled to Thailand saying she feared her family would kill her.

The U.N. refugee agency has referred Qunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement.

“Following the UNHCR referrals, Australia is now going through the steps we are required to do in relation to the assessment process and then when that is complete an announcement will be made,” Payne said in Bangkok, after arriving on a visit arranged before Qunun sought asylum.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her country and family, is seen in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. TWITTER/ @rahaf84427714/via REUTERS

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her country and family, is seen in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. TWITTER/ @rahaf84427714/via REUTERS

Qunun is staying in a Bangkok hotel under the care of the UNHCR.

She arrived in Thailand on Saturday and was initially denied entry. She had been intending to fly from there to Australia to seek asylum.

She soon started posting messages on Twitter from the transit area of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport saying she had “escaped Kuwait” and her life would be in danger if forced to return to Saudi Arabia.

Within hours, a campaign sprang up, spread by a loose network of online activists, and the world watched as she refused to board a flight to Saudi Arabia and barricade herself inside a transit lounge hotel room.

On Monday evening, Thai authorities allowed her to enter the country.

Her case has drawn 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.

‘AUSTRALIA’S CONCERN’

Payne’s visit has also thrown a spotlight on another refugee case, involving Bahrain footballer Hakeem AlAraibi, who has refugee status in Australia but was arrested at Bangkok airport last year after arriving for his honeymoon.

Bahrain made a request to have him extradited and he is in jail, waiting for a hearing to decide his case.

Payne withheld talks with Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prajin Juntong, who is also justice minister, and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai.

“I also appreciate the opportunity … to raise Australia’s concern about the detention of and possible return of Mr Hakeem AlAraibi to Bahrain,” Payne told reporters after the meeting.

“The Thai government is aware of the importance of this matter to Australia.”

AlAraibi was convicted for vandalizing a police station in Bahrain and sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia.

“He has denied all wrongdoing as accused by the Bahrain government,” Nadthasiri Bergman, AlAraibi’s lawyer in Thailand told Reuters.

“He would be put in danger if he is sent back to Bahrain.”

World football governing body FIFA says AlAraibi should be freed and allowed to return to Australia where he plays for Melbourne football club Pascoe Vale in the second tier of the Australian League.

Activists have called on Thai authorities to “show humanity” to AlAraibi in the same way that they did to Qunun.

(This version of the story adds dropped word ‘agency’ in paragraph 2)

(Additional report by Panarat Thepgumpanat, Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Robert Birsel)

#SaveRahaf: Activists’ lightning campaign made Saudi teen’s flight a global cause

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her country and family, is seen in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. TWITTER/ @rahaf84427714/via REUTERS

By Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panu Wongcha-um

BANGKOK (Reuters) – On Sunday morning, a new Twitter account was created by an 18-year-old Saudi woman denied entry into Thailand as she fled from what she said was an abusive family.

The first message from Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, in Arabic, was at 3:20 a.m. Thai time (2020 GMT Saturday) and posted from the transit area of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport. It said: “I am the girl who escaped Kuwait to Thailand. My life is in real danger if I am forced to return to Saudi Arabia.”

Within hours, a campaign sprung up on Twitter dubbed #SaveRahaf. Spread by a loose network of activists around the world, within 36 hours it prompted Thailand’s government to reverse a decision to force the young woman onto a plane that would return her to her family.

Qunun was allowed to enter Thailand and on Tuesday was beginning the process of seeking asylum in a third country through the U.N. refugee agency.

“Everybody was watching. When social media works, this is what happens,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, of the international outcry.

Qunun’s family could not be reached to respond to her allegations of abuse. Reuters could not directly contact Qunun, but spoke to several confidants who described how the dramatic campaign unfolded across the world.

After her initial Tweet, Qunun posted nearly non-stop for five hours, saying she had been abused and threatened by her family.

Halfway around the world, retweets by Saudi Twitter users were noticed by Egyptian-American activist Mona Eltahawy in Montreal who began translating and retweeting Qunun’s Arabic tweets at 4 a.m. Thailand time, even though she was initially unsure if the account was authentic.

“(I was) doing my best to get attention to her because I could not live with myself if she was real and I ignored it,” Eltahawy told Reuters in an e-mail.

BANGKOK, MONTREAL, SYDNEY

About two hours later – 6 a.m. Sunday morning in Thailand but mid-afternoon in Australia – a Sydney-based video journalist noticed and retweeted Eltahawy’s translated messages.

The journalist, Sophie McNeill of Australia Broadcast Corp., began tweeting back to Qunun, and later the two began privately corresponding by direct message.

At 11 a.m. on Sunday in Thailand – eight hours after Qunun began tweeting – Human Rights Watch’s Robertson, who is based in Bangkok, also began tweeting about the case.

He also contacted Qunun directly and she replied.

“She said very clearly that she has suffered both physical and psychological abuse. She said she has made a decision to renounce Islam. And I knew once she said that, she is in serious trouble,” Robertson told Reuters.

Renouncing Islam is a crime punishable by death under the Saudi system of sharia, or Islamic law, though the punishment has not been carried out in recent memory.

By early Sunday afternoon, Robertson had notified the U.N. refugee agency in Thailand and several foreign embassies about the unfolding case, and they began to contact Thai authorities.

BARRICADED DOOR

At around the same time, journalist McNeill decided to fly to Thailand and try to meet Qunun.

“I’d never spoken to her before,” she told Reuters. “For me, it was so important that this was documented, and I wanted to be there and witness it.”

While McNeill boarded a flight from Sydney to Bangkok, Qunun was holed up in an airport transit hotel and afraid she would be forced onto the next flight back to Kuwait. She continued tweeting and also corresponding with Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

At around 5 p.m. Sunday, she was taken out of her room by Thai officials but later allowed to return.

“She filmed these two people talking to her,” said Robertson. “They said to her very clearly that they will put her on the Kuwait Airways flight KU 412 leaving (Monday) at 11:15 a.m.”

By this time, global media outlets had picked up on the story and Thai immigration officials were confirming that Qunun was to be expelled on Monday morning.

At about 1 a.m. Monday morning, Qunun posted a video of herself pushing a table to barricade her hotel room door.

Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is seen with Thai immigration authorities at a hotel inside Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019. Thailand Immigration Police via REUTERS

Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is seen with Thai immigration authorities at a hotel inside Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019. Thailand Immigration Police via REUTERS

THREATENING LANGUAGE

McNeill arrived in Thailand early on Monday and managed to join Qunun in her hotel room.

“When it became clear that she wasn’t going to leave, I decided it was important to stay and have someone documenting what was going on,” McNeill said.

Qunun refused to open the door when various officials came to escort her to the Kuwait Airways flight.

“We were inside the room and there were numerous people coming to the door … There were several Arabic speakers who came and were using threatening language to try and force her back on the plane,” McNeill recalled.

The flight to Kuwait City left without Qunun.

At 3:30 p.m. on Monday, Thailand’s immigration chief Surachate Hakparn held a press conference at the airport for dozens of Thai and international media representatives gathered in the transit area.

After a day of insisting that Qunun must be sent back under Thai law, Surachate said she would not be immediately be expelled since she could be in danger and he would meet U.N. officials to discuss her case.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) country representative Giuseppe de Vincentiis arrived at the airport at about 5 p.m. on Monday to meet Thai officials and Qunun herself.

By about 7:30 p.m on Monday, Surachate told reporters Qunun would be allowed to enter Thailand and apply for asylum in a third country.

The UNHCR said on Tuesday that it would take time to process Qunun’s application, and its officials continued to interview her at an undisclosed location.

Saudi Arabia on Tuesday denied on its Twitter account that its embassy in Thailand had asked for Qunun to be extradited, although Surachate had said the previous day the embassy had been in contact with Thai immigration before her arrival from Kuwait.

The Saudi embassy in Bangkok declined to comment on Qunun’s case when contacted by Reuters on Monday and could not be reached on Tuesday.

But on Tuesday, the Thai immigration office released a video clip of its officials meeting Saudi diplomats to discuss the case.

“When she first arrived in Thailand, she opened a new site (account) and the followers reached about 45,000 within one day,” a Saudi official speaking in Arabic through a translator tells Thai officials in the video.

“I wish you had taken her phone, it would have been better than (taking) her passport,” the official said.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin in Riyadh, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)