Saudi sisters fleeing family face deportation as deadline looms

HONG KONG • Two Saudi sisters trapped in Hong Kong say chronic physical abuse by male family members prompted them to flee the kingdom, where they now fear they will be forcibly returned.

The siblings are the latest example of Saudi women plotting their escape from the ultra-conservative kingdom only to find themselves dodging officials and angry family members at every turn, as the country battles criticism of its human rights record.

The women, aged 20 and 18, found themselves marooned after Saudi consular officials allegedly intercepted them during a stopover at the city's airport and later revoked their passports.

The pair, who have adopted the aliases Reem and Rawan, described a deeply unhappy upbringing in a middle-class Riyadh household.

They claim they were beaten by their father when they were young, and by their brothers when they got older, for small transgressions such as waking up late for prayer.

"They started to beat me... my father didn't really stop them. He thinks that this is what makes them men," Ms Reem told AFP.

They decided to bolt for freedom during a family holiday overseas, when their passports would be kept in their parents' bag instead of a safe - and when they would not need permission from a male guardian to travel abroad.

The opportunity arrived last September, when the family travelled to Sri Lanka for a vacation.

While their parents were sleeping, the sisters retrieved their passports and boarded a flight from Colombo to Hong Kong.

 
 

But trouble awaited them at the other end. They claim they were obstructed by several unknown men at the city's airport, including one who tried to trick them into boarding a plane back to Riyadh.

They said their onward flight booking to Melbourne, Australia was cancelled and later learnt the man was Saudi Arabia's consul general in Hong Kong.

The sisters suspect their father tracked their movements using Absher, a controversial mobile app that operates as a portal to Saudi government services but also allows men to keep tabs on female relatives.

Fearing they were about to be "forcibly abducted", the sisters entered Hong Kong as visitors.

Hong Kong's Security Minister John Lee said on Friday that "police have received two separate reports, one regarding missing person(s) and one regarding request for investigation".

He declined to elaborate further.

The sisters' concerns deepened after they learnt from their lawyer that their passports were revoked in November, leaving them stateless.

But the sisters say they are fearful of being returned to Saudi Arabia.

"Either we will be killed because they want to clear (the) shame we brought as women who left by their own, or they will force us to marry... our cousins", said Ms Reem.

They say they have renounced Islam and fear the death penalty if they return home.

Apostasy or blasphemy is punishable with jail or death sentences in some Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia.

Such cases appear to be on the rise, with the sisters' story emerging a month after 18-year-old Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun drew global attention with her dramatic escape from an allegedly abusive family, gaining refugee status in Canada.

Mr Michael Vidler, a lawyer for the pair, said the Hong Kong immigration authorities have indicated the pair would be "tolerated" in the city until Feb 28, after which they could be deported.

They are now hoping to be granted asylum elsewhere.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 24, 2019, with the headline 'Saudi sisters fleeing family face deportation as deadline looms'. Print Edition | Subscribe