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‘David and Goliath battle’: Passengers sue Qatari airline and authority over unlawful bodily searches

Five women, who were passengers on an October 2020 Qatar Airways flight, and some of whom were subjected to invasive, non-consensual physical examinations at Doha Airport, are suing the airline and Qatar’s aviation authority in Federal Court.

user iconAdam Thorn and Jerome Doraisamy 21 October 2022 Big Law
‘David and Goliath battle’: Passengers sue Qatari airline and authority over unlawful bodily searches
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Editor’s note: This story was jointly produced by Lawyers Weekly and its sister brand, Australian Aviation.

In October 2020, 13 Australian women on board Qatar Airways flight QR908 from Doha to Sydney were asked to leave their aircraft, before being escorted to ambulances for genital checks, supposedly carried out as staff tried to find the mother of a newborn baby abandoned in a bathroom at the airport terminal.

Many of them now claim to have been left injured and traumatised, and having received no personal apology or compensation.


Now, a Statement of Claim has been filed by Marque Lawyers in the NSW Registry of the Federal Court, against the Australian-registered Qatar Airways Group (QCSC) and Qatar Civil Aviation Authority (QCAA).

The State of Qatar has not been named as a party to the proceedings, but QCAA is a government organisation which the state is thus responsible for.

The filing to the Federal Court, details, for the first time, the horrific abuse the women claim to have suffered, and includes claims that four of the women were subject to “intimate gynaecological examinations” – one of whom was accompanied by her five-month-old son.

In conversation with Lawyers Weekly and Australian Aviation, Marque Lawyers partner Damian Sturzaker said: “After two years of trying to sit down with the State of Qatar and resolve the matter amicably, this group of teachers, nurses and artists were left with no alternative but to take on this David and Goliath battle.”

“Marque is proud to represent the group,” he said.


In the Statement of Claim, four of the five applicants detailed having sustained damage in case of bodily injury, as a results of being subjected to unlawful physical contact.

All five of the applicants have suffered and/or continue to suffer, Marque outlined, from anxiety, depression, PTSD and other psychological effects. Moreover, they have incurred medical expenses.

The first applicant has also suffered economic loss, as a result of needing to take medical leave from work due to the effects of the events of the October 2020 flight on her mental health.

The five passengers are seeking declarations that QCSC is liable for a breach of Article 17 (1) of the Montreal Convention 1999, which noted that air carriers are liable for bodily injury of passengers in the course of embarking or disembarking the aircraft.

The applicants are also seeking declarations that the airline is liable for negligence, and QCAA is liable for negligence, assault, battery and false imprisonment.

The five former passengers are seeking damages (including exemplary damages), interest, costs and interlocutory relief.

With regards to the claim for exemplary damages, the Statement of Claim noted that the applicants “were not provided with any or any adequate explanation as to why they had to exit the aircraft” and “were directed about by armed persons despite being cooperative with requests or requirements that they exit the aircraft and move through Doha Airport”.

Four of the five applicants were “subjected to intimate gynaecological examination or inspections to which they did not consent”, Marque wrote.

In the case of two of the applicants, the firm noted, they were subject to such treatment despite one being 52 years of age and despite one being in the company of her five-month-old son, respectively.

The fifth applicant was subject to direction off the aircraft and through the airport terminal, by armed personnel, despite being legally blind and 73 years old at the time.

All five were subjected to such treatment, Marque added, “despite being paying passengers on a commercial flight wholly innocent of the matter” of the purported location of the mother of a newborn baby in an airport terminal bathroom.

‘She told me to pull my pants down’

Aside from the Australian passengers, a further five women from other countries, including the UK and France, were also asked to leave the plane bound for Sydney.

It was later confirmed that women from as many as 10 other flights were also subjected to the ordeal.

Early reports of the incident suggest the women involved were” distraught” and “couldn’t believe what had happened”, as they were pulled from their long-delayed flights and subject to intimate examinations, with no explanation.

Marise Payne, then-Australian Foreign Affairs Minister, said at the time that the incident was “a grossly, grossly disturbing, offensive, concerning set of events”.

Authorities also faced criticism for taking almost a month to publicly apologise for the incident and seemingly attempting to shift the narrative to the premature baby. 

Guardian Australia also reported earlier this year that it had spoken to a number of women who were searched and none had received an apology or offer of compensation from Qatar.

One of the women searched spoke anonymously to the ABC and said authorities locked the ambulance door before telling her to undress.

“When I got in there, and there was a lady with a mask on and then the authorities closed the ambulance behind me and locked it,” she said.

“They never explained anything.”

“She told me to pull my pants down and that I needed to examine my vagina. I said ‘I’m not doing that’, and she did not explain anything to me. She just kept saying, ‘We need to see it, we need to see it’.”

The woman continued that she was eventually let out of the ambulance and ran over to the other girls but added there was “nowhere for me to run”. She eventually removed her clothes and was inspected, and touched, by a female nurse.

“Everyone had gone white and was shaking. I was very scared at that point; I didn’t know what the possibilities were.”

Australia ‘has done little to advance our cause’

In a crowdfunding page, set up to help cover costs in the claim against the Qatari airline and authority, the passengers note that the Australian Government “has done little to advance our cause”.

“Under questioning on 12 November 2021, the then Prime Minister Scott Morrison claimed that procedures at Doha Airport have changed, but the government refused to provide any details,” the page reads.

“We have also sent letters to Anthony Albanese (as former Leader of the Opposition), Penny Wong and Tanya Plibersek, requesting that the Australian Government reveal the supposed changes at Doha Airport and place pressure on the Qatari Government to offer personal apologies.”

“We are still waiting to receive meaningful, personal apologies, and are unaware of the procedures that have been put in place,” the page continues.

Elsewhere, proceedings are underway through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in accordance with the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, following an Initial Assessment made via Australia’s National Contact Point by Marque Lawyers back in August.

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