Runaway Saudi sisters leave Hong Kong for new country

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Two Saudi sisters fleeing their family in Saudi Arabia have secured emergency visas and departed Hong Kong to a new country of residence, their lawyer said Monday.

It's the latest public incident of Saudi women fleeing the kingdom for safety and refuge abroad. In January, Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun's plight to escape her family in Saudi Arabia captured global attention when she called for help via Twitter from an airport hotel room in Bangkok. She was quickly resettled in Canada by the U.N. refugee agency.

Lawyer Michael Vidler said in a statement that the sisters, ages 18 and 20, were granted emergency humanitarian visas after six months in Hong Kong. Vidler said the two are now "beginning their lives as free young women." Their identities and new country of residence were not disclosed.

The sisters were escaping alleged repeated beatings and abuse by their male relatives, according to the rights group Amnesty International. The young women have told media they escaped while on a family trip to Sri Lanka and had intended to seek asylum in Australia.

Their story echoes that of Alqunun, except that they have not disclosed their identities nor shown their faces.

The sisters said in a statement that they want their story to give hope to others facing similar situations.

"We are thrilled... that we have found our way to safety to restart our lives free of violence and oppression," they said.

Saudi female runaways who flee the kingdom are typically trying to escape domestic abuse and male guardianship laws that bar women, regardless of their age, from obtaining a passport, traveling abroad, marrying or undergoing certain medical procedures without a male relative's consent. That often means a husband or father, but sometimes even a woman's own son has sole power to grant permission.

Women who are caught fleeing in Saudi Arabia have few good options. They can be pressured to return home, arrested for disobedience or can be placed in restrictive shelters.

Amnesty International said the sisters arrived in transit in Hong Kong in September but were blocked from continuing their journey. The sisters then entered Hong Kong, but were unable to extend their visas because they'd learned their passports had been revoked.

The Saudi government and its embassies around the world do not typically comment on individual runaway cases, deeming them a "family affair."

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