The head of Thailand’s immigration police has said the country will not deport a young Saudi woman who fled her family at the weekend, due to concerns for her safety.
Thai immigration officials had tried to return Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, to Kuwait, where her family is.
She refused to board a flight to Kuwait City on Monday, and barricaded herself into her hotel room at Bangkok airport.
The teenager said she believed her family would kill her if she went back.
“My brothers and family and the Saudi embassy will be waiting for me in Kuwait,” she told Reuters.
“My life is in danger. My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things.”
Rights groups including Human Rights Watch have expressed grave concerns for Ms Mohammed al-Qunun, who arrived at Bangkok’s international airport on a flight from Kuwait. She had travelled to Thailand for a connecting flight to Australia, where she hoped to seek asylum.
She has said she will not leave her hotel room until she is allowed to meet the UN refugee agency.
Melissa Fleming, head of communications at the refugee agency, tweeted at 18:25 (11:25 GMT) on Monday that “Our Bangkok protection team is meeting with @Rahaf84427714 now”.
Thailand’s chief of immigration police Surachate Hakparn said on Monday afternoon local time that the country would “protect her as best we can”.
“She is now under the sovereignty of Thailand, no-one and no embassy can force her to go anywhere,” he said. “We will talk to her and do whatever she requests.
“Since she escaped trouble to seek our help… we will not send anyone to their death.”
An injunction filed by Thai lawyers in Bangkok criminal court to stop the deportation was dismissed earlier on Monday.
Thailand is not a signatory to the UN Refugee
How did the stand-off start?
Ms Mohammed al-Qunun says that when she arrived in Bangkok on Saturday, her passport was seized by a Saudi diplomat who met her coming off the flight.
Thailand initially said she was being deported because she did not have the requirements for a Thai visa. However, Ms Mohammed al-Qunun insists she has a visa for Australia, and never wanted to stay in Thailand.
The Saudi embassy in Bangkok had earlier said that Ms Mohammed al-Qunun would be deported to Kuwait “where most of her family lives”.
It said Saudi Arabia does not have the authority to hold her at the airport or anywhere else, and that officials are in touch with her father.
Mr Robertson of Human Rights Watch told the BBC: “It seems that the Thai government is manufacturing a story that she tried to apply for a visa and it was denied… in fact, she had an onward ticket to go to Australia, she didn’t want to enter Thailand in the first place.”
He argued that the Thai authorities had clearly co-operated with Saudi Arabia, as Saudi officials were able to meet the plane when it arrived.
How was the world alerted?
Ms Mohammed al-Qunun started attracting attention with her social media posts over the weekend. She has also given a friend access to her Twitter account, calling it a contingency in case anything should happen to her.
She told BBC Newshour she was in a hotel in the transit area.
“I shared my story and my pictures on social media and my father is so angry because I did this… I can’t study and work in my country, so I want to be free and study and work as I want,” she said.
Women in Saudi Arabia are subject to male guardianship laws, which mean they need a male relative’s permission to work, travel, marry, open a bank account, or even leave prison.
Ms Mohammed al-Qunun wrote on Twitter that she had decided to share her name and details because she had “nothing to lose” now.
She has asked for asylum from governments around the world.
A photo appeared of her in her room as officials reportedly stood outside, waiting to put her on a flight back to Kuwait.
Thai Police Major General Surachate
Why are there fears for her welfare?
Ms Mohammed al-Qunun told the BBC that she had renounced Islam, and feared her family would kill her if she was sent back to Saudi Arabia.
She explained to the New York Times: “They will kill me because I fled and because I announced my atheism. They wanted me to pray and to wear a veil, and I didn’t want to.”
Freedom of religion is not legally protected in the Islamic kingdom, and people who convert to another religion from Islam risk being charged with apostasy – or abandoning their religious beliefs.
The crime is legally punishable by death – although courts have not carried out a death sentence in recent years.
Alternatively, Ms Mohammed al-Qunun could be charged with “terrorism”. Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism law and a series of related decrees are used to criminalize a wide range of acts, including insulting the country’s reputation, harming public order, and “calling for atheist thought in any form”.
An adult woman who does not heed her guardian can also be arrested on charges of “disobedience”. If a woman is detained for any reason, the police will not release her unless her guardian comes to pick her up, even if she faces no criminal charges.
Award-winning activist Samar Badawi sought refuge in a women’s shelter in 2008, alleging that her father had beaten and abused her. When her father filed a lawsuit, she was arrested and spent seven months in jail on the charge of “parental disobedience”.
Mariam al-Otaibi, another activist, spent 104 days in jail in 2017 after her father had her arrested on charges of “disobedience”.
Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said Saudi women fleeing their families can face “severe violence from relatives, deprivation of liberty, and other serious harm if returned against their will”.
The case echoes that of another Saudi woman who was in transit to Australia in April 2017.
Dina Ali Lasloom, 24, was en route from Kuwait via the Philippines but was taken back to Saudi Arabia from Manila airport by her family.
She used a Canadian tourist’s phone to send a message, a video of which was posted to Twitter, saying her family would kill her.
Her fate on arriving back in Saudi Arabia remains unknown.