Qatar invokes sovereign immunity to dodge women’s strip search lawsuit

Ethel Walsh

The partner in charge of the brief is Kate Harrison, who represented former ACT attorney-general Bernard Collaery in his battle with the Australian Government over spying charges in East Timor. Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus ordered the prosecution be dropped soon after Labor was elected last year.

Boutique firm Morris Mennilli is acting for Qatar Airways. Marque Lawyers is representing the women.

Gilbert + Tobin taking on the brief will come as a surprise to followers of the firm, which has prided itself on its progressive stance on women, LGBTQ+ issues and the Indigenous Voice to parliament.

Progressive: Danny Gilbert. Wolter Peeters

Founder and managing partner Danny Gilbert is a director of the Business Council of Australia and has been a longtime supporter of the Voice. Last year he said the emergence of ESG (environment social and governance) issues meant “everyone is trying to get their head around what it means to be an outstanding corporate citizen”.

One of the firm’s most high-profile partners is former Matildas captain, Moya Dodd, who spoke out against Qatar being awarded the men’s World Cup and called on its government to decriminalise same-sex relationships.

Only last week, Ms Dodd railed against FIFA’s plans to make Visit Saudi (Arabia) a sponsor of the Women’s World Cup in Australia later this year, noting that “the death penalty is the legally prescribed punishment for consensual same-sex sexual acts”.

Taking on the brief could reignite discussion around law firms and the clients they represent after controversies involving MinterEllison’s work for former Attorney-General Christian Porter in his defamation claim against the ABC and Corrs Chambers Westgarth’s decision to ask the Catholic Church to take their clerical abuse compensation work to another firm. Dentons now does that work in Sydney while Wotton + Kearney has hired former Corrs partner Richard Leder to handle claims for the Melbourne archdiocese.

Only five of 18 Australian women who were subjected to the strip searches are part of the claim, which alleges assault and battery. It is being run under Australian law and the Montreal Convention.

‘Bodily injury’

If fault can be proved under the convention, there is no limit on compensation as long as it is a “bodily injury”. It has been speculated that each litigant could be awarded $2 million if the claim proceeds to trial, with a total bill of $10 million.

The five women, who are aged from late 20s to early 60s, are not named on court documents to protect their privacy.

They were on Flight QR908 from Doha, which was due to leave Hamad International Airport at 8.30pm on October 2, 2020. However, the flight was delayed for four hours after an infant, believed to have been prematurely born, was found alive in a terminal bathroom. The child is now in an orphanage in Doha.

Invasive examination

The women were ordered to disembark without being told why and reportedly forced to strip at gunpoint and undergo an invasive medical examination. One was told to leave her baby behind but refused. After their return to the plane it was allowed to depart.

All up, women on 10 flights were searched. The only other claim is being brought in the United States.

The case will return to court on May 8, which gives the women time to reply to the immunity arguments by Qatar Airways and the QCAA.

The women are also bringing a complaint before the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) against Qatar Airways for breaching their human rights.

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