Two Saudi sisters, who had been living in the U.S., were found dead, washed up on the banks of the Hudson River in New York City on October 24. Tala and Rotana Farea, aged 16 and 22 years old, were duct-taped together at the feet and waist, facing each other and fully-clothed. Their bodies washed ashore in Riverside Park, on the west side of Manhattan.
After a passerby discovered their bodies and called the police, their deaths prompted serious questions, many still unanswered. The New York Police Department (NYPD) has yet to declare a cause of death, although they did confirm that the sisters entered the water alive. At the time of writing, the NYPD had indicated that it is “highly likely” that the sisters had committed suicide.
Speculation about the nature of their death has implicated, directly or indirectly, the involvement of the Saudi government, domestic abuse, and the sisters’ immigration status. Reactions to the incident have lingered on the uncertain claim that the sisters had applied for political asylum in the U.S. shortly before their deaths.
According to the Associated Press, the Fareas’ mother told the NYPD that the Saudi Embassy in Washington had called her the day before her daughters’ deaths and ordered the family to leave the U.S. because her daughters had applied for asylum. The Saudi Embassy denies that such a call or order took place. The veracity of these claims, or lack thereof, could significantly color how this case is perceived and responded to by the global public and authorities.
The sisters seem to have had a close relationship. Tala and Rotana moved with their family from Jeddah to Fairfax, Virginia, near Washington, D.C., in 2015. They lived private lives there with two brothers (age 11 and 18), their mother, Wafa’a, and father Abdulsalam, who traveled frequently to Saudi Arabia to work, according to Arab News. Abdulsalam arrived in New York the weekend after his daughters’ deaths.
An unnamed relative described the sisters to Arab News as “humble, shy, [and] gifted in school.” Before moving to the U.S., Tala attended one of Jeddah’s “most prestigious schools,” Dar Al-Fikr, on a full scholarship. After moving to the U.S., Rotana attended George Mason University in Fairfax but left this past spring for unspecified reasons.
The sisters’ relationship with their family, however, was apparently difficult. In December 2017, their mother reported them missing. After being found a day later, they allegedly requested “protection” and were placed in a shelter, whose location was not disclosed to their mother. The NYPD did not specify what type of shelter, nor the reasons for their request, but suggested physical abuse may have been involved.
An unnamed family member, describing the family as “happy,” rejected the idea that their home life could have been in any way “problematic.” The sisters were close with their father, and their mother was “naturally protective,” according to the relative.
Until she moved out in July, Rotana was living in a luxury apartment complex in Fairfax, possibly with her family. Former neighbors told Local DVM that the family “moved out of the apartment in August 2018.” On August 24, their mother reported Tala as missing, suggesting she would likely be with Rotana.
It appears that Rotana moved to New York City to study computer and information technology at an unspecified college, according to NPR. According to unnamed family members, Tala was upset that her sister had moved and must have followed her to New York. Their mother called off the search for Tala when she re-established contact with her daughters. She maintained contact with the sisters until the week before their deaths, whereupon she reported both of them as missing yet again.
Police have determined, through credit card records and Uber receipts, that they left Fairfax and travelled to New York via Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. They arrived in New York on September 1 and ate at restaurants in Manhattan and stayed in high-end hotels until their credit cards were maxed out.
Investigators used this information to find witnesses and search security camera footage, which suggested the sisters were “apparently in good health” as recently as a week before their death.
NYPD’s Chief of Detectives, Dermot Shea, promised to “get justice” for the sisters, although he added that they have “no credible information that any crime took place in New York City.” Interviews with family and friends have “unravel[ed]” a “piece of the puzzle,” Shea said, but there is “still work to do.” The NYPD is still trying to pin down the sisters’ whereabouts between August 24 and their deaths on October 24, and whether their deaths were suicides, “foul play,” or an “honor killing.”
Investigators ruled out a preliminary theory that the sisters may have committed suicide by jumping from the George Washington Bridge in Upper Manhattan because the sisters’ bodies lacked expected signs of trauma. Medical examiners determined that they had not been in the water for long. Shea reported that the duct tape was meant to keep them together but not bind them.
Nonetheless, investigators have strongly indicated that they believe the deaths were suicides. The NYPD is “currently looking for what might have been their entry point into the water,” according to the New York Times.
A witness told the NYPD that, at around 7 AM on the same day their bodies were found, he saw two girls sitting about 30 feet apart in a park on the Hudson, with their heads in their hands, praying. Investigators also found a purse and passports belonging to the sisters in Riverside Park.
If Tala and Rotana Farea did take their own lives, determining their motivation is less clear. A “grief-stricken” family member quoted by Arab News rejected the theory of suicide, insisting that the sisters were “both happy and supported.” They added that “all families have problems . . . but that didn’t push them to the edge as the Western media is portraying.”
The sisters’ alleged asylum application and the Saudi Embassy’s alleged order for the family to return to Saudi Arabia in response if verified, could be construed as motives for suicide. Investigators are trying to confirm these allegations and whether they factored into their deaths. If true, the sisters’ deaths could be interpreted as having been spurred by political persecution or fear of violence.
According to investigators, the sisters had told acquaintances that they “would rather harm themselves than go back to their home country.”
Human rights defenders have criticized Saudi Arabia’s restrictive rule over its female citizens, mainly enforced by a system of male guardianship that severely limits women’s self-determination. At least 577 Saudi women tried to flee their homes in 2015, according to the AP. In several prominent cases, women who have tried to flee the country have been forcibly, sometimes violently, detained and returned to the country. Some, like activist Mariam al-Otaibi, have been imprisoned for long durations.
Asylum seekers, who are by nature seeking protection out of fear of violence or persecution at home, have been driven to suicide in many cases, especially when their asylum has been denied or delayed.
Saudi Arabia, and its relationship with the U.S., is under intense scrutiny following the gruesome murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives in Istanbul. Khashoggi, like the Farea sisters, had been living in the Washington, D.C. area. The U.S. administration, which has maintained relations with Saudi Arabia even after Khashoggi’s murder, may face additional pressure if Saudi Arabia is found to have threatened its citizens living in the U.S. for seeking asylum.
An unnamed embassy official told Arab News that the embassy had not called the sisters’ mother and that “any/all communication with the mother had nothing to do with a supposed asylum claim.” Fatimah Baeshen, an embassy spokesperson tweeted that it was “absolutely false” that “we ordered anyone related to the Saudi sisters . . . to leave the U.S. for seeking asylum.”
Reports that we ordered anyone related to the Saudi sisters, Tala and Rotana Farea, God rest their souls, (who recently died tragically in NY), to leave the US for seeking asylum; are absolutely false. Details are still under investigation and will be shared in due course.
— Fatimah S Baeshen (@FatimahSBaeshen) November 2, 2018
Arab News, which is published by a company with close ties to the Saudi royal family, claimed that, when it contacted the NYPD, the department denied having released information about an alleged asylum claim. Saudi officials told CNN that they are looking into whether or not the sisters did apply for asylum.
U.S. federal regulations “prohibit the disclosure” of information pertaining to asylum applications to the applicant’s country of origin. If the sisters did apply for asylum, the Saudi Embassy would not have known that unless this regulation were breached or non-government sources informed them.
A Saudi official offered another explanation, telling CNN that “the girls’ mother’s immigration status had expired and that U.S. officials had asked her to leave the country . . . . [The Saudis] asked the Immigration and Customs Enforcement to give their mother an extension and called their mother to let her know.”
The Saudi Consulate General in New York stated that it had “appointed an attorney to follow the case closely” and had “extended its support and aid [to the family] in this trying time.”
— القنصلية العامة في نيويورك (@KSAconsulateNY) October 30, 2018
The investigation is still ongoing and its consequences remain to be seen.
The bodies of Tala and Rotana have been returned to Saudi Arabia, to be buried at al-Baqi cemetery in the city of Medina.