Australia’s government has cited Qatar’s strip searches of five Australian women in Doha as “context” behind a decision to block extra flights by Qatar Airways.
Transport Minister Catherine King said on Thursday that the “invasive” gynaecological examinations carried out at Doha International Airport in 2020 influenced her decision to deny the Qatari airline’s bid to double its Australian flights.
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Qatar authorities carried out the exams on the passengers as part of an investigation into the whereabouts of the mother of a newborn baby discovered in an airport bathroom.
“Certainly, for context, this is the only airline that has something like that that has happened,” King said during a news conference in Canberra.
“And so I can’t say that, you know, I wasn’t aware of it, but, certainly, it wasn’t the only factor.”
“There was no one factor that influenced this decision,” King added.
King said the women’s experiences were “pretty frankly, not anything we would expect anyone, and certainly not Australians travelling on an international airline, to experience”.
In June, the women’s lawyers sent King a letter in which Qatar Airways was described as “not fit to carry passengers around the globe let alone to major Australian airports”.
The five women are suing Qatar Airways and the state-run Qatar Civil Aviation Authority over the incident.
King formally rejected Qatar Airways’ bid to add flights to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane in July, citing her belief that the proposal was not in Australia’s national interests.
Australia’s centre-left Labor government has been under fire for blocking Qatar Airways’ proposal, with critics accusing Canberra of protecting national carrier Qantas’s profits at the expense of consumers.
The cost of flights between Australia and Europe has soared since the COVID-19 pandemic, with some tickets going for double their usual rate, and travel industry figures have argued that more competition could help bring down fares.
Qantas, which has admitted lobbying against the Qatar Airways bid, has also faced criticism over a series of recent controversies, including allegations it sold about 8,000 tickets for flights it knew had already been cancelled.
On Tuesday, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce retired two months earlier than planned while acknowledging mounting criticism against the airline.
The Qatari embassy in Canberra did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Following the 2020 incident, Qatar’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani had expressed his “deepest sympathies with the women impacted by the search at the airport” and renewed the Gulf state’s apology to them.
“The incident is considered a violation of Qatar’s laws and values,” he said at the time, adding that the officials involved had been referred to the public prosecutor.