Saudi sisters free after six months stranded in Hong Kong

Girls left abusive family during holiday in Sri Lanka last year

Afp March 25, 2019

HONG KONG: Two Saudi sisters marooned in Hong Kong have arrived in a safe third country after securing humanitarian visas, their law firm said on Monday, ending a months-long ordeal as they sought sanctuary from an abusive family.

The siblings -- the latest example of Saudi women escaping the kingdom only to find themselves stranded in foreign cities -- said they were "thrilled" their story had a "happy ending" after making a public appeal for their safety.

The young women, aged 20 and 18, said they made a break from an abusive family during a holiday in Sri Lanka last September with the intention of heading for Australia, but they only made it as far as Hong Kong.

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The pair -- who use the aliases Reem and Rawan -- said they were intercepted at the airport by Saudi consular officials and their air tickets cancelled. Fearful they might be abducted, they entered Hong Kong as visitors but later had their passports revoked, leaving them stranded in the semiautonomous Chinese city.

The sisters, who had previously said they lived in constant fear of being found by Saudi authorities and their family while in Hong Kong, were finally able to leave the city late last week after being granted "emergency humanitarian visas" and start new lives in another country, their law firm said.

A video posted on the firm's Facebook page showed the sisters jumping around excitedly as they departed Hong Kong airport.

"We are thrilled that our story has a happy ending and that we have found our way to safety to re-start our lives free of violence and oppression. We wish for our story to offer hope to others who face similar situations," Reem and Rawan said in a statement.

"We want to say loud and clear to the Saudi authorities and other regimes which treat women unequally: never underestimate the strength of brave women," they added.

Their lawyer Michael Vidler did not disclose their new location "to ensure their future security", saying no further details would be provided, including on the application process and their new lives.
Vidler said the sisters would not give interviews again, but thanked local and international media for their support.

The two women last month told AFP that chronic physical abuse by male family members prompted them to flee.

Their testimony cannot be independently verified and Saudi authorities have yet to comment on their allegations.

Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director at Amnesty International, said the sisters "showed immense courage and took huge risks to escape the repeated abuse by their male relatives".

"The sisters must be allowed to build their lives without living in fear that their family or the Saudi authorities will force them back," she added.

Many Saudi women who flee overseas have spoken to media and rights groups of persuasive and coercive tactics used by Saudi officials and family members to pursue those who escape.

At the beginning of the year, 18-year-old Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun drew global attention with her dramatic escape from an allegedly abusive family, gaining refugee status in Canada.