Lawyer says sisters, aged 28 and 30, were subjected to torture and abuse by family members before they fled to Istanbul.
Two Saudi sisters who fled their country and appealed for international protection saying they are at risk at home have received an offer of help from Georgia.
Immigration authorities in the former Soviet republic visited the siblings in their temporary apartment in Tbilisi, providing them with information on how to apply for asylum in the country, the Georgian interior ministry said on Thursday.
“The purpose of the visit of law enforcement officers was to offer assistance and security guarantees to the women and inform them about procedures on getting asylum in Georgia,” the ministry said in a statement.
The sisters identified as Maha al-Subaie, 28, and Wafaa al-Subaie, 25, were later taken to the interior ministry’s immigration office in a security van, local media footage showed.
They had taken to Twitter on Wednesday saying they had arrived in Georgia and needed help from the international community to find a new country to call home.
In a video posted on Twitter, the sisters claimed “they fled oppression from our family because the laws in Saudi Arabia is too [weak] to protect us” and say they are in danger.
Rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Georgian authorities to keep the two women safe.
“By interviewing the sisters, the Georgian authorities have made a positive first step,” Giorgi Gogia, HRW associate director for Europe and Central Asia told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The rest depends on the sisters’ wishes. If they file an asylum request, we hope that this request will be granted quickly.”
Concerns for safety
The sisters said they had become stranded in Georgia after the Saudi government suspended their passports and they feared for their lives, as members of their family had come looking for them.
“We are in danger. We need your support to deliver our voice. We want protection … Please help us,” Maha said in a Twitter video, where both sisters appeared without the head-covering veil imposed by Saudi social norms.
My father and brothers arrived in Georgia and they are looking for us.
We fled oppression from our family because the laws in Saudi Arabia is too week to protect us
— georgia sisters (@GeorgiaSisters) April 17, 2019
A member of an online global network of Saudi women who help raise awareness about such cases, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that Georgia is not safe for the sisters, because of the easy access granted to Saudis.
“You have a whole tribe that can come after you and hunt you down in Georgia without asking for a visa or any difficulties,” said the source whose identity is being protected.
But on Thursday, Georgia’s interior ministry said there were no relatives in the country who posed a danger to them.
And the Saudi embassy in Tbilisi said the women’s passports were still in effect.
“In reference to what has been said about the cancellation of the passports of the citizens Maha and Wafaa Zayed who are present in Georgia, the embassy of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia confirms that their passports are still in force, and there is no truth to the circulated allegations that they have been cancelled,” the embassy said in a written statement.
The CBC source, identified only has Heba said the women began to have trouble with their family when Maha decided to divorce her husband, and Wafaa supported her. They both became targets of abuse and decided to flee, Heba said.
The case is the latest to draw attention to Saudi Arabia‘s strict social rules, which force women to obtain the permission of a male “guardian” if they want to work, marry or travel.
Rights groups say the system can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families, and the sisters are not the first Saudi women to seek urgent refuge outside their homeland.
“Women and girls in Saudi Arabia who attempt to flee from the control of their families can face very grave consequences,” said Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Middle East consultant for women’s rights group Equality Now.
“They are in danger of being locked at home for the rest of their lives, severely punished, and may even be killed.”
Last month, two Saudi sisters fleeing their family in Saudi Arabia secured emergency visas after hiding for months in Hong Kong, according to their lawyer.
The young women, who adopted the aliases Reem and Rawan, left Hong Kong for a new country of residence, which has not been named.
Lawyer Michael Vidler said in a statement that the sisters, aged 18 and 20, were granted emergency humanitarian visas after six months in Hong Kong. Vidler said the two are now “beginning their lives as free young women”.
In January, 18-year-old Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed (formerly al-Qunun), was granted asylum in Canada after using Twitter to garner worldwide attention for her escape from a hotel room in Bangkok.
And in 2017, a Saudi woman who had sought asylum in Australia, saying she feared violence from relatives, was stopped on a layover in the Philippines and returned to Riyadh.