No more tweeting for Saudi asylum seeker after 'threats'

BANGKOK • An 18-year-old Saudi asylum seeker who fled from her family to Thailand and harnessed the power of Twitter to stave off deportation yesterday abruptly suspended her account, with friends saying she had received death threats.

Ms Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun's attempt to flee the ultra-conservative kingdom has been embraced by rights groups as a beacon of defiance against repression.

The Thai authorities initially threatened to deport her after she arrived in Bangkok from Kuwait last weekend.

But, armed with a smartphone and a hastily opened Twitter account, she forced a U-turn from Thai immigration police who handed her into the care of the United Nations' refugee agency as the #SaveRahaf hashtag case bounced across the world.

Ms Qunun alleges abuse by her family - who deny the allegations - and rights groups also said she had renounced Islam, risking prosecution in conservative Saudi Arabia.

Yesterday afternoon, she posted a final cryptic tweet on her profile saying: "I have some good news and some bad news." Shortly after, her account was deactivated.

"Rahaf received death threats and for this reason she closed her Twitter account, please save Rahaf's life," tweeted her supporter @nourahfa313, who has flanked Ms Qunun's social media campaign with her own updates on Twitter.


"I understand that there have been death threats against her but I don't know the details," said Human Rights Watch's Mr Phil Robertson, adding that even threats from online trolls need to be taken seriously.

Ms Qunun's swift use of Twitter saw her amass over 100,000 followers within a week, highlighting her plight and allowing her to avoid the fate of countless other refugees who are quietly sent back home or languish in Bangkok detention centres. Though her asylum case has moved at lightning speed, the mystery over which country will accept her remains.

Australia has dropped the strongest hints so far, after the UN urged the country to accept her, but its foreign minister said this week that it was still assessing the request.

Thailand's immigration chief Surachate Hakparn told reporters yesterday that as far as he knew, there were "two or three" countries which could offer asylum.

The South-east Asian nation is not a signatory to a convention on refugees, and asylum seekers must be referred to a third country. Until that happens, she is under the care of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangkok.

She refuses to see her father, who travelled to Thailand and has expressed opposition to her resettlement.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2019, with the headline 'No more tweeting for Saudi asylum seeker after 'threats''. Print Edition | Subscribe