• World
  • Hong Kong

Saudi Sisters Stranded for Months in Hong Kong After Fleeing the Kingdom, Rights Group Says

4 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

Two Saudi Arabian sisters have spent almost six months hiding in Hong Kong after authorities reportedly foiled an attempt to flee the conservative kingdom, a human rights group says.

Using aliases to protect their identities, non-profit Justice Centre Hong Kong said in a statement that Reem, 20, and Rawan, 18, arrived in the city on Sept. 6, 2018, after escaping during a family holiday in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo. The pair had booked a connecting flight to Melbourne Australia, where they planned to seek asylum, but they were intercepted upon landing and told their flight had been cancelled.

“We fled our home to ensure our safety,” the pair said in the statement. “We hope that we can be given asylum in a country which recognizes women’s rights and treats them as equals. We dream of being in a safe place where we can be normal young women, free from violence and oppression.”

The statement also says the two women have renounced Islam, for which they could face the death penalty if forced to return to Saudi Arabia.

According to the Justice Centre, the women arrived in Hong Kong via SriLankan Airlines and were immediately approached by two men now known to be staff of the carrier. Believing they were being assisted, the women followed the men through a security checkpoint before being led to a desk of Emirates Airlines. The Justice Centre said the airline since admitted that the men were acting “solely at the request of the Royal Consulate General of Saudi Arabia in Hong Kong.”

Another man later learned to be the Saudi Arabian Consul General then tried to deceive the women into boarding a flight back to Saudi Arabia, the statement continued. The two men reportedly held their passports, which they tried to get back and flee, fearing they were about to be forcibly abducted. The passports were later returned after the women threatened to call the police, according to the Justice Centre.

The Consul General reportedly then told the women that their uncle, described as being from Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry, was on the phone. They refused to speak with him. The pair reportedly fled and tried to board their connecting Cathay Pacific flight, but were told their bookings had been cancelled.

The sisters have had to change locations 13 times since their arrival in Hong Kong, the Justice Centre said, fearing for their safety. Their Saudi passports have reportedly been invalidated, but their presence in Hong Kong is believed to be tolerated by the semi-autonomous region’s immigration authorities until Feb. 28.

According to a statement from Michael Vidler, a prominent human rights lawyer representing the sisters, Reem and Rawan have been living in “legal limbo in Hong Kong” but “remain hopeful that they can find a third country place of safety as soon as possible.”

The Saudi consul general was not immediately available for comment.

A post from a Twitter account purporting to belong to the sisters said they “do not want to face same fate” as Jamal Khashoggi, the prominent columnist who was murdered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last October. The CIA concluded in November that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had ordered his killing, which the Saudi government has denied.

The incident follows the high-profile case of Rahaf Mohammed, a Saudi teenager who also sought asylum in Australia, claiming she faced abuse at home. She was detained during a layover in Thailand, where she was threatened with deportation back to Riyadh. Following a major international campaign to halt her deportation amid fears she would be killed, Rahaf was ultimately granted asylum in Canada.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com