Qatar said Friday it referred officials at its international airport to prosecutors for possible charges after women aboard Qatar Airways flights faced forced vaginal examinations following the discovery of an abandoned newborn baby.
The statement comes as the Australian government has expressed outrage and union workers have threatened not to service Qatar Airways aircraft in Sydney over the Oct. 2 incident. Australia also represents a crucial route for Qatar Airways, the state-owned long-haul carrier based at Hamad International Airport in Doha.
In a statement, Qatar’s Government Communication Office described the abandoning of the baby as the “attempted murder” of the child.
“The subsequent procedures taken by the authorities at the airport, including examining a number of female passengers, revealed that standard procedures were violated,” the statement said. “Those responsible for these violations and illegal actions have been referred to the Public Prosecution Office.”
The statement did not elaborate or identify who had given the order to conduct the exams. It said an investigation by Qatari authorities continued and that Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al Thani, the country’s prime minister and interior minister, offered his country’s “sincerest apology” to the women forced to undergo the exams.
“What took place is wholly inconsistent with Qatar’s culture and values,” the statement said. “Qatar is fully committed to the safety and security of all travelers.”
Sheikh Khalid later wrote on Twitter: “I assure you that we will hold those responsible for these acts to account.”
The physical examinations of passengers bound for Sydney and nine other unnamed destinations triggered outrage in Australia. The government denounced the searches as inappropriate and beyond circumstances in which the women could give free and informed consent. Rights activists say such exams conducted under duress amount to sexual assault.
Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne on Friday described Qatar’s actions after the incident as “consistent with our expectations for contrition, accountability and determination to avoid any repeat of this disturbing episode.”
“The preliminary investigation of Qatar into this incident has shown illegal actions occurred,” she said in a statement. “It is an important step that these offenses have been referred to the Public Prosecution Office.”
In Qatar, like much of the Middle East, sex and childbirth outside of marriage are criminalized. Migrant workers in the past have hidden pregnancies and tried to travel abroad to give birth, and others have abandoned their babies anonymously to avoid imprisonment.
Qatar, a small, energy-rich state on the Arabian Peninsula, will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.