The government of Qatar expressed “regret” on Wednesday over a decision to pull more than a dozen women from a Qatar Airways flight in Doha, make them strip and subject them to invasive medical exams in ambulances on the tarmac after an abandoned newborn was found in an airport bathroom.
But the government justified officials’ actions earlier this month, saying that it was the first time an infant had been discovered in such a condition at Hamad International Airport, and it called the abandonment an “egregious and life-threatening violation of the law.”
“While the aim of the urgently decided search was to prevent the perpetrators of the horrible crime from escaping, the State of Qatar regrets any distress or infringement on the personal freedoms of any traveler caused by this action,” the government said in a statement.
The strip-searches on Oct. 2 came to light after Australian news outlets reported that the female passengers had been marched off a Sydney-bound flight at the airport in the Qatari capital. Some were made to take off their underwear and submit to an invasive exam to see if they had recently given birth, an Australian nurse told The New York Times. Older women had their bellies pressed.
“These examinations can constitute sexual assault,” Heather Barr, a lawyer and co-director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, said.
The case triggered shock and outrage in Australia, and the country’s federal police is investigating.
Scott Morrison, the prime minister of Australia, said on Wednesday of the invasive search: “We find this unacceptable.” He added, “It was appalling. As a father of daughters, I could only shudder at the thought that anyone would, Australian or otherwise, it would be subjected to that.”
The government statement came as new details about the episode emerged.
Qatar’s government said the newborn was found in a trash can, “concealed in a plastic bag and buried under garbage.” It said the baby had been rescued from “what appeared to be a shocking and appalling attempt to kill her.”
It said the newborn, a girl, was alive and “safe under medical care in Doha.” Information about the infant’s parents remain unknown.
Qatar’s prime minister had directed that “a comprehensive, transparent investigation into the incident be conducted,” the statement said. “The results of the investigation will be shared with our international partners.”
Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, told a Senate committee hearing that a total of 18 Australian women on Flight QR908 had been subjected to the invasive searches.
Ms. Payne said that aircraft was one of 10 flights where female passengers were given the exams and that women from other countries had also been searched.
Earlier, she called the searches “a grossly, grossly disturbing, offensive, concerning set of events. It is not something I have ever heard of occurring in my life in any context.”
Women on the flight reported the searches to Australian authorities after arriving at Sydney Oct. 3. and one woman on the flight emailed the Foreign Affairs Department that night, according to The Guardian.
A woman in her 60s identified as Kim Mills told The Guardian that shad been the “luckiest one” among the passengers taken off the Qatar Airways flight, because her age and gray hair had most likely spared her from the invasive exams.
“They probably looked at me and thought well, that’s impossible, it could not be her,” Ms. Mills told the newspaper. She recalled seeing a younger woman coming out of an ambulance after a search “crying and distraught.”
The episode has highlighted the treatment of women in Qatar, where sex, pregnancy and giving birth out of marriage are criminalized. Local women accused of such crimes, even if their pregnancy resulted from rape, could face arrest or imprisonment.
The treatment of the female airline passengers episode raised questions about whether foreign women traveling through the airport in Qatar could legally be subject to the same laws, and to invasive and potentially nonconsensual procedures, experts said.
Mr. Morrison said in his statement, “It is important wherever travelers are traveling, they are able to do so, free of those types of incidents. And we will continue to ensure we support Australians and all those circumstances, both here and when traveling overseas.”
In a statement, the director of Amnesty International Australia, Samantha Klintworth, had called the searches “a gross breach of these women’s rights.”
Damien Cave, Livia Albeck-Ripka and Yan Zhuang contributed reporting.