(HRW) – Two Saudi sisters in Turkish police custody are at risk of forced return to Saudi Arabia, where they could face serious harm from Saudi authorities or family members, Human Rights Watch said today. One of the sisters lost a challenge to her deportation in a Turkish court in December 2017 and is at immediate risk of deportation, while the other’s case is still in process.
The sisters, Ashwaq Hamoud, 30, and Areej Hamoud, 28, said they fled Saudi Arabia in late February to Turkey to escape abuse from male family members, ranging from beatings to being locked in their room and deprived of food. Turkish authorities detained the sisters on May 16, in Istanbul when they attempted to follow up on applications for residency permits.
“Saudi women fleeing their family or the country can face so-called ‘honor’ violence or other serious harm if returned against their will,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If Turkey returns these women, the consequences could be dire.”
The sisters are at risk of serious harm if returned to their family. They also face possible criminal charges, in violation of their basic rights, including for “parental disobedience,” which can result in punishments ranging from being returned to their guardian’s home to imprisonment, as well as charges of “harming the reputation of the kingdom” due to their public requests for assistance.
The sisters’ lawyer told Human Rights Watch that he challenged a deportation order for the sisters in May.
The father of the two sisters informed the Turkish authorities that he believed the two were planning to travel to Syria to join a militant group. The sisters have denied the allegation. There is no known criminal investigation into the women by the Turkish authorities in connection with their father’s allegation.
The lawyer said that he viewed the sisters’ boarding passes, which indicated that the sisters attempted to flee to New Zealand on February 8 via Hong Kong from Abu Dhabi but were not permitted to board their connecting flight in Hong Kong because officials suspected that the purpose of the sisters’ trip was to claim asylum rather than tourism. The sisters instead decided to fly from Hong Kong to Istanbul on February 9 and stay in Turkey rather than return to Saudi Arabia, the lawyer said.
Following their detention on May 16, the sisters issued a series of videos from their mobile phone in which they claimed they fled family abuse and feared they would be harmed if returned to Saudi Arabia.
Theirs is the latest in a series of high-profile cases in which Saudi women say they fled abusive families and are at risk of forcible return. In April, Dina Ali Lasloom, a 24-year-old Saudi woman, was returned to Saudi Arabia against her will while in transit in the Philippines. Mariam al-Otaibi, 29, fled abusive family members in al-Qassim Province for Riyadh in April, only to be captured by authorities and jailed. Authorities released al-Otaibi in late July.
Human Rights Watch has documented how under Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system, adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel abroad, marry, or be released from prison, and may be required to provide guardian consent to work or get health care. These restrictions last from birth until death, as women are, in the view of the Saudi state, permanent legal minors.
While Saudi Arabia has some regulations on domestic violence, guardianship makes it incredibly difficult for victims of violence to seek protection or obtain legal redress for abuse. The near impossibility of transferring guardianship away from abusive relatives can condemn women to a life of violence. Shelters for survivors of domestic violence often send women back to their abusers if they sign a pledge not to harm them, and women cannot leave such shelters without a male relative to receive them.
“Saudi women face systematic discrimination every day, and the Hamoud sisters’ case shows that women who flee face the real threat of being returned to abusive families,” Whitson said.