Bodies of Saudi asylum seeker sisters found dead in Sydney repatriated to country they fled

The bodies of two Saudi asylum seekers – found dead in their apartment in Sydney’s west in June – have been repatriated to Saudi Arabia, the country the sisters fled seeking protection in Australia.

The police investigation into the deaths of Asra Abdullah Alsehli, 24, and Amaal Abdullah Alsehli, 23, continues, and officers have repeated their calls for any public information. Police have confirmed they do not know the cause of the sisters’ deaths.

The Guardian understands their bodies were repatriated sometime last week, and they were buried according to Islamic traditions.

While the family has remained publicly silent, it is also understood the women’s parents have remained in contact with New South Wales police.

Asra and Amaal were found in their beds in their apartment on Canterbury Road, Canterbury on 7 June.

There were no signs of forced entry at their home, nor any injuries to their bodies. It is believed the sisters had been dead for over a month when they were found. Their deaths were “suspicious in nature in that we don’t know the cause of death”, Detective Inspector Claudia Allcroft said.

The sisters were both seeking asylum in Australia: each had an active claim for asylum ongoing with the Department of Home Affairs and had engaged with settlement services providers in Sydney.

The basis of one sister’s claim for protection included a fear of persecution in Saudi Arabia based on her sexuality: her sister’s linked claim was based on her own fear of persecution.

Government sources have confirmed the sisters, who arrived in Australia in 2017, had had their claim for protection initially refused at the departmental level, but were not at the end of the asylum process. Still open to them was a full merits review before the administrative appeals tribunal, appeals to the federal court, and an application for ministerial review.

They had valid visas and were not facing removal from Australia.

When the sisters’ deaths were discovered, their family did not travel to Australia to claim their bodies, instead delegating authority to the Saudi consulate in Sydney.

NSW police confirmed that the sisters’ bodies had since been repatriated to Saudi Arabia.

It comes after the Guardian revealed the sisters attended a girls-only queer event in January where they told acquaintances gay women “live in fear” in Saudi Arabia.

A woman who met the sisters at the event said they were “keeping to themselves” at the party and were reluctant to talk in detail about their home country.

“They mentioned that they were from Saudi Arabia, and we talked about what it is like to be queer there,” the woman said.

“They said women live in fear of their safety and that they were grateful to be living in Australia, where they could more freely express themselves.

“I got the impression that they very rarely go out and hadn’t explored much of Sydney.”

A former landlord told the Guardian the women’s mother had visited them sometime between 2017 and 2019, but the sisters generally “kept to themselves”, had very few friends – apart from a boyfriend one of the sisters had. He said the pair rarely left home, and “only … for Tafe, shopping or work”.

Both sisters worked in traffic control for a construction company.

The older sister, Asra, had also applied for an apprehended violence order in January 2019 against a man, although that application was withdrawn.

The ABC previously reported the women had sent their building manager an email in January asking him to check the building’s CCTV cameras, saying they feared their food delivery had been tampered with.

The building manager found nothing, and reportedly called police to conduct a welfare check after a plumber had noted they looked afraid. Police attended the unit at the time, asked a series of questions and left.

The sheriff was later called to the unit after the women fell behind on their rent, leading to the discovery of their bodies.

About 75 Saudi women have been granted permanent protection visas in Australia in the past five years.

Burwood detectives have established Strike Force Woolbird to investigate the women’s deaths. Anyone who has any information is urged to contact Burwood police station on (02) 9745 8499 or Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.