Australian MPs pull out of dinner with Qatari ambassador over Doha airport incident

Daniel Hurst
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Australian politicians from the major parties have pulled out of a formal dinner at the Qatari ambassador’s residence in protest at the invasive treatment of women at Doha airport.

Members of parliament’s security and intelligence committee have taken the stand as political pressure grows for the government to strengthen its response to the compulsory medical examination travellers endured before travelling from Doha to Sydney on 2 October.

The Labor opposition demanded that the foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, pick up the phone to her Qatari ministerial counterpart to register her protest, because “people are outraged that Australian citizens were treated in this way”.

Related: 'I was absolutely terrified': Australian witness recounts Qatar strip-search ordeal

Labor’s Senate leader and foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, said the Qatari government’s expression of regret was “only just a start” and the women deserved an unqualified apology and full transparency.

“I simply cannot fathom why our foreign minister didn’t pick up the phone when she heard about this and express the strongest possible protest, both to demonstrate how important it was for us, for it to have a reasonable response but also to register a protest,” she told reporters on Thursday.

The shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, said he had no doubt the events were a breach of international human rights law and called on the government to seek redress for the women.

The Transport Workers’ Union is also considering whether its members can take any action in relation to Qatar Airways.

The Australian government confirmed this week that 18 women on a flight from Doha to Sydney had been subjected to the compulsory medical examination, including 13 Australian citizens and five people of other nationalities.

Related: Qatar scandal: do the women subjected to medical examination at Doha airport have any legal options?

Passengers from 10 flights leaving Doha on the evening of 2 October were also affected, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told a Senate estimates committee.

The Liberal chair of the parliament’s powerful security committee, Andrew Hastie, and his Labor deputy, Anthony Byrne, said they had declined an invitation for members to attend a dinner at Saad Al-Mahmood’s ambassadorial residence in Canberra on 9 November.

“Due to the mistreatment of Australian women at Doha airport, we decline this invitation,” Hastie and Byrne said in a joint statement on Thursday.

“We fully anticipate that the Qatari government will investigate the mistreatment of Australian citizens and provide a detailed report to the Australian government.”

The invitation was issued to members of the committee after Hastie had a routine meeting with Al-Mahmood at Parliament House on 19 October.

It’s understood Hastie was not aware of the events at Doha airport at the time of the meeting, which happened after Dfat was informed but before the story became public at the beginning of this week. Hastie’s office communicated the decision to the embassy on Thursday.

Payne telephoned Al-Mahmood earlier this week to reiterate the concerns an official had conveyed to him on 6 October and to request a full report on what had occurred to be handed over by the end of this week.

She has also made arrangements to speak with the Qatari foreign minister once the report is handed over.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, said his government had “registered its strong disapproval and outrage” at the invasive treatment and would take further action once it had considered the forthcoming report.

Related: Qatar expresses 'regret' after women from 10 flights taken for medical examinations at Doha airport

The Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Sydney was delayed from taking off and the women were asked by the cabin crew, on behalf of Qatari authorities, to disembark.

They were then led through the airport to an underground area, told to get into waiting ambulances, and then told to remove their underwear so a female medical professional could examine them to see if they had recently given birth.

The government of Qatar said on Wednesday that the “urgently decided” search was sparked by the discovery of a newborn baby placed into a rubbish bin. The child is alive and in the care of authorities. Qatar said it regretted any distress caused.

Qatar’s embassy in Canberra has not yet responded to Guardian Australia’s request for comment.

While Morrison has said his government would “continue to take a very strident approach” in responding to the “appalling” events, he has also noted Qatar Airways is currently performing an important role in carrying about 15% of the Australians returning home after being stranded during the pandemic.

Qatar is also Australia’s second-largest two-way trading partner in the Middle East and North Africa region, with the trade in goods and services totalling $2.13bn last year.

The key Australian exports to Qatar are alumina, meat, live animals and engineering services, according to Dfat’s country brief. It says Qatar’s large sovereign wealth fund and its subsidiaries have invested about $3bn in Australian property, logistics, energy and agriculture.

Related: Australia demands answers after women taken from Qatar Airways flight and strip-searched

While Australia is protesting the treatment of women at Doha airport and leaving the door open to strengthening its response, the government is also making representations to Qatar over the detention of a former Afghan solider convicted of murdering three Australian soldiers in 2012.

The former soldier, known as Hekmatullah, was transferred from Afghanistan to Qatar on 10 September and remains in detention.

“That was a compromise organised by the US government with the government of Qatar to enable the commencement of the Afghanistan peace negotiations,” a Dfat official, Ian Biggs, told an estimates committee hearing late on Wednesday.

He said since Hekmatullah’s transfer there had been “a continuing series of interventions” by Morrison, Payne, defence minister Linda Reynolds and officials to the governments of Qatar, the US and Afghanistan to ensure they understood the strength of feeling in Australia that Hekmatullah should never be released.