Saudi asylum seeker is still 'scared', says friend

Ms Qanun (centre) being escorted by a Thai immigration officer (right) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials at Suvarnabhumi international airport in Bangkok.
Ms Qanun (centre) being escorted by a Thai immigration officer (right) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials at Suvarnabhumi international airport in Bangkok.PHOTOS: AFP

BANGKOK - An 18-year-old Saudi Arabian asylum seeker whose tweets about resisting deportation from Thailand roused a social media storm remains terrified, even though she is now under the care of staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangkok.

Ms Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, who was stopped by officials after landing at Thailand’s Suvarnabhumi airport on Sunday, holed herself up in an airport hotel room until she was allowed to enter the Kingdom on Monday evening for her asylum claim to be processed.

“I spoke to her a few hours ago. She’s actually scared because she is still in Thailand. And she knows that Thailand is not a safe country,” her friend, who identified herself as “SH”, told The Straits Times by phone early on Wednesday morning  (Jan 9).

“Any moment she could be dead. She could be taken to Saudi Arabia.”

Ms Qunun had renounced Islam without the knowledge of her family, said SH. But her family noticed something different in her mannerisms and speech. 

“They told her ‘if you leave Islam, we will kill you’,” she said.

Renouncing Islam is punishable by death under syariah law in Saudi Arabia.

 
 
 

SH, a 19-year-old Saudi woman who said she was given asylum in Sweden, has access to Ms Qunun’s Twitter account and corresponded with ST through it.

According to SH, two other Saudi women – granted asylum in Australia and Canada – also have access to this Twitter account.

When asked why she was seeking asylum, Ms Qunun told Reuters: “Physical, emotional and verbal abuse and being imprisoned inside the house for months. They threaten to kill me and prevent me from continuing my education.

“They won’t let me drive or travel. I am oppressed. I love life and work and I am very ambitious, but my family is preventing me from living.”

In the conservative Saudi Kingdom, a woman’s guardian – who could be her father, husband or son – needs to consent before she can enroll in a school, open a savings account or perform many other everyday tasks.

SH, while declining to reveal details of Ms Qunun’s family, claimed Ms Qunun’s brother beat her.

Ms Qunun’s father is reportedly in Bangkok. Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Thailand, meanwhile, has denied that it asked for Ms Qunun to be extradited.

“I hope that people will still pressure countries to give her asylum,” said SH. “I hope that people are still tweeting about her so that the Saudi embassy and Thai police will be scared. The world is watching them now.”

Speaking on behalf of Ms Qunun and her two other friends who had similarly fled Saudi Arabia, SH made a plea to her country.

“We love our country. We love Saudi Arabia, but we feel forced to get out to get protection.

“Please cancel male guardianship so that we can live our lives, we can go to school, we can do everything.

“I hope that Saudi Arabia will put a strong system to save women like us, who are facing real violence.”