Update Jan 10.: Immigration police chief Surachate Hakparn said Wednesday evening that Alqunun’s father and brother plan to remain in Thailand until they know what country she will be sent to. He also said they would try to appeal against her resettlement.
BANGKOK — Thailand’s immigration chief said Wednesday that confiscating a runaway Saudi woman’s phone would have violated her rights in an apparent rebuke of a Saudi diplomat’s complaint.
After saying the Saudis were pleased with how Thailand handled the case of a young woman fleeing her family, Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn addressed a complaint caught on tape in which Saudi Arabia’s charge d’affaires in Bangkok said he wished her phone had been confiscated instead of her passport.
“As soon as [Rahaf] arrived, she opened an account and got about 45,000 followers? In a single day,” Abdullah al-Shuaibi said to a counterpart in Arabic during a meeting with Thai officials, according to the video’s subtitles. “I wish they would’ve confiscated her phone instead of her passport.”
The video was shared online and went viral yesterday. Thai officials have denied taking Alqunun’s passport; she said it was taken by a Saudi man.
Surachate today responded that his officers were following the law.
“I’d like to emphasize that police didn’t have the authority to confiscate her phone,” he said. “She didn’t commit a crime, and it was within her rights [to tweet].”
He added that what al-Shuaibi said was “just a comment” and shouldn’t be taken seriously.
The lieutenant-general also said Alqunun’s case could be resolved within a couple more days as several countries have already made offers of residency. He declined to say whether she has been granted refugee status by the UN Refugee Agency.
In a break from normal policy, she was allowed to request asylum directly from the UNHCR in Thailand, which is not party to international agreements on refugees.
Alqunun’s father arrived in Thailand this morning to meet the with UNHCR reps but was turned away by his daughter, Surachate said. He said the father would return to Saudi Arabia today.
This past weekend, Alqunun grabbed the attention around the globe after she sent out pleas for help via Twitter, saying her passport was confiscated while transiting through Bangkok on her way to Australia. She barricaded herself in an airport hotel room before being allowed into the country under care of the UN on Monday.
The two kingdoms have not enjoyed full diplomatic relations for three decades, ever since a scandal involving stolen gems and two Saudi diplomats murdered in Bangkok.
Clarification: The quote from immigration police chief Surachate Hakparn has been updated with a better translation of his comments.