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Ehrlich: Saudi Teen Renounces Islam, Tweets To Safety

Saudi Teenager Renounces Islam & Tweets Herself to Safety

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The United Nations granted refugee status on January 9 to a Saudi teenager who fled her country and barricaded herself in Bangkok's international airport, claiming she would be executed for renouncing her belief in Islam, disobeying her brutal family, and trying to fly to Australia.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun's repeated statements that she had renounced her belief in Islam may have been the strongest reason for her to qualify as a refugee because punishment in Saudi Arabia could result in lengthy imprisonment or execution by beheading.

"She said she has made a decision to renounce Islam. And I knew once she said that, she is in serious trouble," Human Rights Watch's Bangkok-based representative Phil Robertson tweeted.

"It's confirmed #UNHCR (the United Nations High Commission for Refugees) has determined #Rahaf is a refugee, & her case has been referred to #Australia for protection & resettlement," Mr. Robertson tweeted on January 9.

Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne was scheduled to arrive in Bangkok on January 10 to discuss a similar asylum case involving Hakeem al-Arabi from Bahrain.

"Will she [Ms. Payne] take #Rahaf back with her? #SaveRahaf," Mr. Robertson said.

Australia's Home Affairs Department issued a statement saying it will consider the UNHCR's referral, and conduct security and character assessments before granting her a humanitarian visa.

Ms. Qunun said in a January 7 tweet from Bangkok's airport she was "seeking refugee status to any country that would protect me from getting harmed or killed due to leaving my religion and torture from my family."

She asked Canada, the U.S., Australia or Britain to immediately contact her.

New York-based Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International in London, and others confirmed Ms. Qunun's situation was an international violation of her human rights, and demanded she should be assisted to safety in a third country.

They rejected Saudi and Thai officials' claims that her case was a family squabble which should be resolved by her Saudi father, who flew to Bangkok on January 8 presumably to take her home.

Ms. Qunun said her father Mohammed al-Qunun is the governor of Saudi Arabia's al-Sulaimi province, and she feared her family would "torture" her, or worse, for defying them.

She has now become a symbol of Saudi women's rights in the eyes of her supporters on Twitter's #Rahaf and #SaveRahaf sites.

They say their next target will be Saudi Arabia's repressive "male guardianship system" which decrees all Saudi females -- throughout their life -- must be obedient to their father, brother, husband or son to work, travel, marry or do other public activities.

"Disobedience" is punishable by imprisonment.

Ms. Qunun's plight began when she arrived on January 6 on a flight from Kuwait, hoping to transit Bangkok and continue to Australia on the Australian tourist visa in her Saudi passport.

Stopped by Thai officials in the transit area, she was told that she had to return to Saudi Arabia -- possibly because her family had already contacted Bangkok to say she had run away from home.

Ms. Qunun immediately used her Internet-savvy skills and repeatedly pleaded on her @rahaf84427714 Twitter account and in vivid online videos for help, saying she would be killed if forced back to Saudi Arabia.

"I'm not sure I'll survive if the Saudi Embassy doesn't stop pursuing me," she said.

Her tweets quickly became a tense, emotional, confrontational drama, attracting more than 110,000 followers who insisted UNHCR arrange for her to receive sanctuary in Australia or elsewhere.

Thailand has not signed international conventions on refugees, but has sheltered thousands of refugees from Cambodia, Laos, Burma and elsewhere. Bangkok did sign international human rights treaties preventing the deportation of innocent people to any country where they could be in danger.

Unable to leave the transit area of Bangkok's sprawling Suvarnabhumi International Airport, she was escorted to a room adjacent to the transit zone, while Thai and Saudi officials worked out a plan to hurriedly fly her home.

Egyptian-American activist Mona Eltahawy in Canada meanwhile translated Ms. Qunun's Arabic language tweets into English, though the teenager also posted other messages in English.

Ms. Eltahawy later received death threats and insults online for helping a Muslim woman escape her religion, she said.

Foreign correspondents, Human Rights Watch and others also began tweeting about Ms. Qunun, and Australia Broadcast Corp. correspondent Sophie McNeill, who had reported from the Middle East, flew from Australia to Thailand and stayed in Ms. Qunun's barricaded room with her.

Ms. McNeill showed how the teenager blocked the door with a table, chair and upright mattress stripped of its bed sheets, turning the transit room into a makeshift bunker.

"It is confusing for her, and she is particularly terrified by these reports that her father has landed in Bangkok," Ms. McNeill said.

UNHCR's Thailand representative Giuseppe de Vincentiis meanwhile arrived at her room on January 7, met Thai officials and Ms. Qunun, and gained permission to bring her to a UNHCR safe house for processing.

"Since Thailand is the 'Land of Smiles,' of course we won't send someone to their death," Thai Immigration Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn told reporters on January 7.

Escorted by officials, Ms. Qunun then emerged from her room on January 7 wearing the same black T-shirt and faded jeans that she wore when she landed.

"When she first arrived in Thailand, she opened a new [Twitter] site and the followers reached about 45,000 within one day," said Charge d'affaires Abdalelah Mohammed Alsheaiby from the Saudi Arabian embassy in Bangkok during his meeting on January 8 with Thai immigration officials.

"I wish you had taken her phone, it would have been better than [taking] her passport," he said in Arabic language.

An English translation of his remarks quickly went viral online as part of a campaign suggesting other Saudi females use Internet to publicize their plight either in their country or when they try to escape.

Ms. Qunun ditched her family when they were visiting Kuwait, having discreetly secured a tourist visa for Australia in December.

Transit through Bangkok should have been no problem with an onward ticket to Australia.

Thai immigration said she was unable to show an onward or a return ticket, so she could not stay in the transit lounge or enter the country under normal rules, and had to be sent back on Kuwait Airlines because she arrived on their plane.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978 and winner of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He co-authored three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!' Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60 Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter "Ceremonies and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest book, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo" portrays a 22-year-old American female mental patient who is abducted to Asia by her abusive San Francisco psychiatrist.

His online sites are:

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