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Qatar urged to drop charges against assaulted World Cup worker

Doha (AFP) – Rights groups are urging Qatar to drop a case against a Mexican World Cup employee who could be sentenced to jail and a flogging after she reported an assault and was then charged with unmarried sex.

In a case that has raised fears for women attending the tournament later this year, Paola Schietekat, 28, was left with bruises on her arm, shoulder and back after a male acquaintance forced his way into her Doha apartment and attacked her in June.

Schietekat, who has fled the country and could be sentenced in absentia, was charged with sex outside wedlock — a crime in Qatar — after her assailant told police the pair were in a relationship.

Breaking the “zina” laws, which criminalise unmarried sex, carries a potential sentence of up to seven years’ jail and lashes. Officials say however the harsh punishment is rarely carried out.

Schietekat, who was working as a behavioural economist, went to the Mexican embassy in Doha with photos of her injuries and reported the assault to the police.

The woman, who said she was sexually abused as a teenager, said the investigation then turned on her, with police demanding a virginity test.

“For some reason I had become the accused,” she wrote in a blog about the incident.

Human Rights Watch is demanding Qatar scrap the case against Schietekat ahead of a March 6 hearing, while world football body FIFA is monitoring the case.

“Qatari authorities should immediately drop these charges which are not recognised under international law… (and) investigate the physical assault she reported,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights expert for HRW.

– Forced gynaecological examinations –

Qatar has been under close scrutiny as it prepares to host the first World Cup in the Middle East in November and December.

In October 2020, women passengers at Doha airport were forced to undergo invasive gynaecological examinations after a newborn baby was found abandoned. Authorities later apologised.

Schietekat said World Cup organisers helped her leave Qatar and that she is still employed by the organising committee.

Begum urged Qatar to repeal legislation that criminalises consensual sex between unmarried adults and establish better medical and legal support for sexual attack survivors, ahead of the World Cup.

“At major sporting events like the World Cup, the risk of sexual violence increases greatly because of the sheer number of people attending,” she told AFP.

Qatari legal officials acknowledge the case could be dropped, while authorities have not commented publicly.

– ‘Real risk’ –

Qatar is expecting 1.2 million visitors for the November 21-December 18 tournament, including a record number of female fans. 

Begum said Qatar’s law on sexual relations was a “real risk” for women who could face prosecution like Schietekat.

“Police (in Qatar) often do not believe women who report violence in the first instance, particularly foreign women who are often seen as more sexually active,” she said.

“Now you are going to get a lot more women coming to the country as fans and workers, and they are going to be a lot more vulnerable if the authorities do not believe them.”

FIFA said it was “aware of the situation involving Ms Schietekat and it is of utmost importance to FIFA that, as a survivor of abuse, she receives all appropriate care and assistance”. It added that it was in contact with Qatari organisers and officials.

Ronan Evain, executive director of Football Supporters Europe, a network of European fan groups, said women face “an increased risk of sexual assault” at all tournaments.

“It is a risk in any country but when it is in a country not capable of protecting the rights of victims then it is very worrying.”

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