Qatar Airways has argued that an incident at Doha airport in which women were forcibly removed from planes by armed guards and some intimately examined without consent was a result of the actions of police and not airline or airport staff.
Five Australian woman are suing the airline and its subsidiary Matar, which runs Doha airport, over the incident in October 2020, seeking damages over “unlawful physical contact” and mental health impacts, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
They were among more than a dozen passengers who were escorted off Qatar Airways planes by guards with guns as authorities searched for the mother of a newborn baby found abandoned in a plastic bag at Hamad international airport. The infant survived.
The women were taken to ambulances on the tarmac and some were forced to submit to invasive examinations for evidence they had recently given birth. The lawsuit claims one passenger was forced to undergo a strip-search holding her five-month-old son.
The Australian women’s case came before the federal court in Sydney on Friday for a case management hearing in which Qatar Airways and Matar submitted evidence in their application to dismiss the lawsuit.
Qatar Airways and Matar are seeking to prove that the “men in dark uniforms” who took the women off the plane, as alleged by the women, were Qatari police under the command of Qatar’s ministry of interior, and not employees or agents of the airline, the court heard.
The court heard that evidence submitted includes testimony of cabin and flight crew claiming the order for all women to leave the plane was initiated by ministry of interior officers.
Jerome Entwisle, a barrister representing Matar, claimed the ministry was directing the response at the airport, and likened the lawsuit to suing Sydney airport for actions of carried out by Australian Federal Police.
The matter is being heard in an Australian court because both Australia and Qatar are parties signed up to the Montreal convention, which governs airline liability around the world. Under the convention a lawsuit can be brought before the courts in the jurisdiction where a passenger lives.
However, Talia Epstein, a barrister acting for Qatar Airways, argued that the lawsuit does not fall under the convention.
Christopher Ward SC, acting for the five women, told the court the evidence submitted by the parties goes beyond the relevant points and includes statements to which his side cannot respond.
Justice John Halley said “the question is whether or not what occurred occurred because of instructions” by people who were employees, akin to employees or agents of Qatar Airways or Matar.
The Qatar Civil Aviation Authority – owned by the Qatari government – is another party attached to the lawsuit, and it is separately seeking a stay on the basis of sovereign immunity.
Under international law, sovereign immunity states a government cannot be sued or held responsible for crimes or damages without its consent, and is immune from the jurisdiction of courts of another state. But there is an exception under sovereign immunity where it relates to the state engaging in commercial activity.
The proceedings follow the Australian government’s refusal of Qatar Airways’ push to increase flights to Australia, claiming such an allowance would go against Australia’s “national interest”.
The five women who are part of the lawsuit earlier wrote to the transport minister, Catherine King, urging her to reject the airline’s request, and King told the women their experience remains in her thoughts.
Additional reporting by Ben Doherty