video update

Saudi woman fleeing family admitted to Thailand

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun (second from left) is escorted by Thai immigration police chief Lt Gen Surachate Hakparn (second from right) and UNHCR officials from her hotel room after Thailand agrees to admit her for evaluation by UNHCR. (Photo supplied by Thai police)

The young Saudi woman seeking passage to asylum in Australia will be temporarily admitted to Thailand for evaluation by the UN refugee agency, the immigration police chief said.

Pol Lt Gen Surachate Hakparn told reporters Monday night that 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Qunun would be granted entry under the protection of the office of the UN High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR). He said the UN agency would take at least five to seven days to evaluate her case.

On Tuesday, he told reporters that Qunun's father and brother were due in Thailand on Tuesday evening.

He said he would talk to the UN refugee agency about the potential of a meeting between the family members.

"Rahaf is not a political asylum case," he insisted. "It is not political at all."

The immigration police chief's announcement came after Thai authorities allowed a UN team to meet Ms Qunun.

Police officials and staff at the Bangkok airport hotel where the woman was staying said she had already left her room there, though her exact destination was not made public.

(Reuters video)

Giuseppe De Vincentiis, the UNHCR representative in Thailand, told journalists on Monday night he did not know where Ms Qunun would be staying but that she would be safe because she was under his agency's protection.

UNHCR declined to release any details of its meeting with her, but De Vincentiis noted "a good spirit of collaboration so far'' with Thai officials.

He noted her tweets mentioned "she does not want Islam", adding that "this type of thing, in her country, is a hard crime.''

Pol Lt Gen Surachate said her father was supposed to arrive in Thailand on Monday night.

"After her father arrives, officials will see what happens and whether or not she will want to go back with him," he said.

The teenager tweeted late Monday that her father had arrived in Bangkok from Saudi Arabia. There was no meeting between the two.

Pol Lt Gen Surachate challenged parts of the young Saudi woman's story, including that she had an Australian visa.

"The fact is she didn't have any money. She intended to come here and didn't have any visa to go to Australia. So we have to state the facts here. But we will provide assistance nonetheless,'' he said.

He later said Kuwait Airways had been at fault for allowing her to board her flight to Thailand without having proper travel documents. The airline did not immediately comment.

Thai U-turn under media spotlight

Thai authorities appeared to back down on its plan to deport her after her case caught international attention.

With the world's media shining a spotlight on the fast-developing story, Ms Qunun was finally granted access to representatives of the United Nations refugee agency early on Monday evening.

Thailand's immigration police chief said Ms Qunun, who was stopped in Bangkok as she was trying to travel to Australia for asylum to escape alleged abuse by her family, will not be sent anywhere against her wishes.

Pol Lt Gen Surachate said at a news conference at Bangkok's main international airport on Monday afternoon that if Thai authorities decide not to send her back to Saudi Arabia, they would need to explain why to Saudi authorities in order not to affect the countries' relations.

"If she does not want to leave, we will not force her," he told reporters at Suvarnabhumi airport. "The UNHCR and I will... listen to what she wants, whether or not she wants to receive asylum to which country, and we will help coordinate."

If she wished to stay in Thailand, the UN would have to verify the legitimacy of her asylum claims, Pol Lt Gen Surachate said.

"Thailand is a land of smiles. We will not send anyone to die," he added. "We will take care of her as best as we can."

The immigration police chief's change of heart appeared to be partly due to the worldwide attention and pressure from foreign governments and international bodies that the case has attracted over the past 36 hours.

Ms Qunun stayed in her hotel room all day, barricaded from within and surrounded by police outside. In a near-constant stream of tweets  -- many posted by a Saudi woman in Australia who had also fled the country -- she pleaded for asylum and sought help from governments and international agencies, including the United Nations refugee agency.

Shortly after noon, it was confirmed by a source in Thai immigration that she had not boarded her scheduled deportation flight -- and the dramatic story that started with a series of panicked tweets and rapidly captured worldwide attention then moved to the Thai legal system. 

Human rights lawyer Nadthasiri Bergman told AFP she filed an injunction at 1pm to Bangkok's Criminal Court to prevent Ms Qunun's deportation, arguing that Thai authorities had no grounds to hold her if she had a passport and a visa for travel to Australia.

The court rejected the injunction, the NPS law firm said on Facebook, because there was not enough evidence and her identity was unclear.

Earlier, she resisted attempts to deport her on a flight to Kuwait at 11.15am by barricading herself in her hotel room at the Miracle Transit Hotel, while police outside refused to let anyone speak to her -- reportedly including representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 

On Monday morning, the immigration chief said that she was currently "waiting for boarding, our immigration officer and Saudi Arabian embassy officials are with her".

"She bought the ticket herself yesterday, she is waiting to board [the flight to] Saudi Arabia," he said of the Kuwait Airways flight to Kuwait due to depart at 11.15am.

Asked if she was seeking asylum, he said "we do not know but if anyone wants to seek asylum, they have to wait for those countries to reply".

The incident comes against the backdrop of intense scrutiny of Saudi Arabia over its investigation and handling of the shocking murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year, which has renewed criticism of the kingdom's rights record.

Ms Qunun told the AFP news agency she ran away from her family while travelling in Kuwait because they subjected her to physical and psychological abuse.

She said she had planned to travel to Australia and seek asylum there, and feared she would be killed if she was repatriated by Thai immigration officials who stopped her during transit on Sunday.

The 18-year-old said she was stopped by Saudi and Kuwaiti officials when she arrived at Suvarnabhumi airport and her travel document was forcibly taken from her, a claim backed by Human Rights Watch.

She tweeted that she was due to be deported on a Kuwait Airways flight to Kuwait due to depart at 11.15am.

"I ask the government of Thailand... to stop my deportation to Kuwait," she said on Twitter. "I ask the police in Thailand to start my asylum process."

Shortly before the scheduled departure, she posted a plea for people within "the transit area in Bangkok to protest against deporting me".

"Please I need u all," she wrote. "I'm shouting out for help of humanity."

In a sign of growing desperation during the night, she posted video of her barricading her hotel room door with furniture.

If sent back, she said she will likely be imprisoned, and is "sure 100%" her family will kill her, she told AFP.

The Saudi woman told the BBC that she had renounced Islam, and feared her family would kill her if she was sent back to Saudi Arabia.

Freedom of religion is not legally protected in the Islamic kingdom, and people who convert to another religion from Islam risk being charged with apostasy -- or abandoning their religious beliefs.

The crime is legally punishable by death -- although courts have not carried out a death sentence in recent years.

A senior Thai immigration official said Sunday Ms Qunun was denied entry because she lacked "further documents such as return ticket or money" and Thailand had contacted the "Saudi Arabia embassy to coordinate".

Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said she "faces grave harm if she is forced back to Saudi Arabia" and Thailand should allow her to see the UNHCR and apply for asylum.

"Given Saudi Arabia's long track record of looking the other way in so-called honour violence incidents, her worry that she could be killed if returned cannot be ignored," he said.

The UNHCR said that according to the principle of non-refoulement, asylum seekers cannot be returned to their country of origin if their life is under threat.

"The UN Refugee Agency has been following developments closely and has been trying to seek access from the Thai authorities to meet with Rahaf Mohammed Qunun, to assess her need for international protection," it said in a statement.

The ultra-conservative kingdom has long been criticised for imposing some of the world's toughest restrictions on women.

That includes a guardianship system that allows men to exercise arbitrary authority to make decisions on behalf of their female relatives.

In addition to facing punishment for "moral" crimes, women can also become the target of "honour killings" at the hands of their families, activists say.

Abdulilah al-Shouaibi, charge d'affaires at the Saudi embassy in Bangkok, acknowledged in an interview with Saudi-owned channel Rotana Khalijial that the woman's father had contacted the diplomatic mission for "help" to bring her back.

But he denied that her passport had been seized and that embassy officials were present inside the airport.

Saudi Arabia has come under fierce criticism following the murder of dissident journalist Khashoggi inside the kingdom's Istanbul consulate on Oct 2 — a case that stunned the world.

Another Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, was stopped in transit in the Philippines in April 2017 when she attempted to flee her family.

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