EXCLUSIVE: It is the case that continues to baffle Australia. Two sisters, seemingly uninjured, found dead in separate bedrooms of their Western Sydney apartment weeks after their estimated time of death. Now, four months into an investigation characterised by secrecy and silence we’re left with more questions than answers. But are NSW Police really as clueless as they appear? And is there more to this supposed “suicide” than meets the eye? Joanna Psaros reports.
Though the details differ between accounts, all can agree that Tuesday, 7 June was a bad day to be the landlord of Asra and Amaal Abdullah Alsehli. The sisters, aged 24 and 23 respectively, had been several months late in the rent of their shared Canterbury apartment, and management had had enough. But when it came time to serve an eviction notice at the residence, a gruesome surprise awaited.
The bodies of Asra and Amaal were discovered lying in beds in separate bedrooms. They were naked, and bore no signs of obvious physical injury. The women could almost have been sleeping; were they not in a state of advanced decomposition, with forensic investigators estimating the actual time of death to have been sometime back in early May.
That two young women had become so isolated it took an estimated month before their absence was noticed is one of the more tragic elements of this story. But some four months after their deaths made global headlines, it still feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface of the Alsehli sisters’ prematurely short lives and what – or who – was responsible for ending them.
Asra and Amaal Abdullah Alsehli were Saudi Arabian nationals who had been living in Australia for only five years. Little is known about their background prior to arriving or life in Sydney except that the rest of their family remained in Saudi Arabia – even following the women’s deaths.
In August, Asra and Amaal’s remains were quietly transported to the family. At the time, investigators were awaiting further toxicology testing after initial reports came back inconclusive. It’s been reported there were trace elements of the chemicals and other substances found at the scene in the sisters’ systems, although no details have been released to suggest what such substances may have been and whether they were sufficiently deadly to kill two otherwise healthy young women.
Mysterious deaths: Amaal Abdullah Alsehli, 23, (left) and 24-year old sister, Asra Abdullah Alsehli (Image: NSW Police / Supplied)
A spokesperson for NSW Police has told True Crime News Weekly that the investigation is ongoing, with a report currently being prepared for the State Coroner. Police have refused to elaborate further on the report’s outcome, stating “it is for the Coroner to determine their cause of death.”
When TCNW brought this to the Coroner’s Office, representatives refused to comment. Nor did either party answer our questions about the follow-up toxicology report, or even confirm that it had been examined yet.
Whether they’re preparing to release further enlightening evidence in the case remains to be seen. But with the investigation to date riddled with inconsistencies, the public probably shouldn’t hold its breath.
1. Why did Asra and Amaal flee Saudi Arabia? And why did police attempt to misdirect the public about their refugee status?
One of the biggest mysteries of the case are the circumstances surrounding the sisters’ migration to Australia in 2017. This is partly due to NSW Police, who initially tried denying Asra and Amaal had applied for asylum at all before numerous media reports proved this to be incorrect.
At a press conference after the bodies were discovered, NSW Police appealed to the public for information about the deceased but refused to answer questions about the womens’ visa status. It was later confirmed by media that the women were each on bridging visas and had applied for protection visas with the Department of Home Affairs. They had also been in contact with domestic settlement providers.
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The basis on which Asra and Amaal were claiming a need for protection has not been confirmed, with media speculating everything from atheism to lesbianism. Saudi Arabia has a notoriously poor human rights record when it comes to religious and sexual intolerance. “Honour killings” of female relatives are, even today, not uncommon. Meanwhile, members of the Saudi monarchy have been found to secretly spy on critics of the state, with a US-based Twitter employee recently found guilty of passing on the personal information of social media dissidents to an aide of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The Department of Home Affairs reports that 86 Saudi Arabian women applied for permanent protection in Australia between 2017 and 2022, of which 75 were granted. But as the Alsehlis may have learned, escape to Australia doesn’t always guarantee a safe ending.
2. Did the Alsehli family, as police claimed, really cooperate with investigators? Or did they put pressure on officers to delay the release of key evidence?
NSW Police were seemingly caught in another embarrassing lie regarding the investigation. And the implication may suggest more than just incompetence.
Emphasising that there was “nothing to suggest” the Alsehli family were suspects, Police Detective Inspector Claudia Allcroft claimed the family was fully cooperating with police via the Saudi Consulate, which they appointed to act on their behalf. This was called into question by several Australian publications that reported the family had in fact pressured police against releasing the sisters’ identities or photographs until almost two months into the investigation.
If this was indeed the case, it would hardly be the first time Australian officials turned a blind eye to widespread corruption from a state that happens to be a major trading partner with Australia, and which controls almost 20% of the world’s oil reserves.
Last year, the Australian Government seemingly ignored human rights campaigners’ calls to “press” the Saudi Government over the unlawful detention of Australian citizen Osama al-Hasani, remaining silent. Even more nefarious are claims of Australian customs officials deliberately sabotaging Saudi women’s attempts to flee.
Of course, not all Saudi citizens have the means or inclination to corrupt Australian officials into criminal cover ups. Though interestingly, Detective Inspector Allcroft also let slip that this particular family is “very well connected.”
The Canterbury apartment block where the bodies were discovered (Image: RealEstate.com / Supplied)
3. Investigators seemed strangely unconcerned with evidence from multiple parties suggesting the sisters feared for their safety
Though the investigation remains technically open, officers on Strikeforce Woolbird have not been shy in positing their own theories about what happened.
“There’s no indication of anyone else being in the unit … no forced entry. It really does appear to be a tragic suicide,” a senior police source told The Daily Telegraph in August.
It’s unclear exactly what “indications” police would expect given the potential crime was not discovered until a month later- surely ample time to leave the scene – or whether the absence of forced entry signs should have been enough for police to rule out outsider involvement.
Regardless, investigators do not appear to have acted on evidence suggesting the two women exhibited signs of growing fear and paranoia in the months leading up to their deaths.
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In January this year, Amaal emailed her building manager asking for the building’s CCTV cameras to be checked over fears someone was tampering with her food delivery orders. On another occasion, the women reported seeing a strange man lurking outside the apartment – a claim backed up by several other witnesses. When one witness asked the man where he lived, he gave the unit number of the Alsehlis’ residence.
When asked if this unknown man was a person of interest in the investigation, police refused to comment. He was not referenced in any of the investigators’ appeals to the public.
When ABC journalists Mahmood Fazal and Rachael Brown were researching their Walkley-nominated podcast on the Saudi sisters’ mysterious deaths, they reported they were seemingly followed around by a strange man in a car in an apparent attempt at intimidation.
4. The strangeness of the “suicide” scene
From the little we know, it’s clear Asra and Amaal Abdullah Alsehli did not have an easy life. Still in their teens when they fled to the other side of the world with just $5,000 in savings, the women reportedly lived an unusually reclusive life in Australia. One police investigator recalls coming across only two people who actually knew the girls personally. Yet in many ways they did not fit the typical profile of suicides.
There is no evidence that either woman had been diagnosed with a mental health condition, and the picture painted of their behaviour in the months leading up to their deaths appears more suggestive of fear than depression.
Equally puzzling is the fact that their deaths occurred simultaneously. Suicide pacts, in which two people decide to take their lives together, are actually incredibly rare and represent just 0.01% of all suicides. They are also more common in older people, particularly spouses.
There were also claims the women could have suffered carbon monoxide poisoning. However, those claims were literally thrown out the window with a Google Maps image taken of the sisters Canterbury apartment after they were believed to have died but before they were found showing an open kitchen window to their unit.
5. What can the similar experiences of others tell us about the sisters death?
Bizarrely, this isn’t first time that the strange deaths of two young Saudi women overseas have been labelled suicides despite substantial evidence pointing otherwise.
In October 2019, the bodies of sisters Tala Farea and Rotana Farea were found duct taped together, washed ashore the banks of the Hudson River in New York.
Tala and Rotana had fled their home in Saudi Arabia to seek political asylum in the US four years prior, and while officials ruled their deaths a double suicide, the women’s father told media he did not believe the finding due to seeing heavy facial bruising on both bodies suggesting they had been beaten before they died.
Eerily similar: Sisters Tala and Rotana Farea were found dead, duct taped together in New York. US Police claimed their deaths were suicide but even their father in Saudi Arabia believes they were murdered (Image: CNN / Supplied)
Closer to home, there have been multiple reports of Saudi Arabian women attempting to enter Australia for protection from their government and own extended family, only for their journeys to be intercepted. A number of these cases, including that of Dina Ali Lasloom, who was reportedly “terrified” by the arrival of her uncles at Manila Airport where they had followed her en route, occurred at or around the time the Alsehli sisters arrived in Sydney.
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Disturbingly, it seems that for many Saudi women, the violence and persecution they seek to escape has a habit of following them. And that one way or another, powerful forces will ensure they return to Saudi Arabia- alive or otherwise.
Sadly, this isn’t the first time NSW Police have seemingly come to a dead end on the possible murders of Muslims in Sydney who have had high level connections in the Middle East. In 2012, Egyptian national Ahmed Ghoniem was stabbed and then had his Potts Point apartment set alight.
Ahmed Ghoniem: Egyptian man murdered in Sydney in 2012, with the crime still unsolved (Image: Supplied)
In an investigation co-written with the Sydney Morning Herald, True Crime News Weekly discovered Ghoniem had left Egpyt to live a free life in Australia as an openly gay man with the prime suspect in his death believed to include the extended family members of a former boyfriend.
The suspect fled Australia for overseas by plane within 48 hours of Mr Ghoniem’s murder. One friend said it was only after he died that Mr Ghoniem’s family learnt he was gay. Mr Ghoniem’s father was a high-level figure in Egypt’s government at the time.
Like the Saudi sisters’ family this year, Mr Ghoniem’s family never made public appeals to find his killer. His case remains unsolved.
6. What role could Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman play?
The deaths of the Saudi sisters in Sydney need to be placed in its proper wider context in regards to how realpolitik operates in Saudi Arabia. For this is a nation that has engaged in extra-judicial murders of its own citizens in foreign countries. Infamously foremost amongst those was the beheading killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.
It has been widely alleged that Mr Khashoggi’s murder in October 2018 was carried out by Saudi secret service agents on the direct orders of the nation’s present leader and prime minister, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, widely known as ‘MBS’.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud: Alleged to have been the mastermind of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 (Image: Wiki Commons / Supplied)
As mentioned previously, just two months ago, a former Twitter employee was also found guilty of spying on Saudi dissidents using the social media platform and passing their personal information to MBS. This is a government led by a leader that seemingly doesn’t respect the laws of other nations.
Has the investigation into the deaths of the sisters in Sydney stalled so as not to perturb MBS and a nation which Australia’s allies – the US Government – are keen not to upset due to its reliance on Saudi oil? The lives of women have long been traded as if they were items of loss and profit. It is a continuing emblem of patriarchy and misogyny the world over.
7. Do we really know Asra and Amaal Abdullah Alsehli at all?
Almost certainly not. And neither do police.
We can only hope investigators don’t leave these questions unsolved, and that the sisters’ deaths will be less of a mystery than their lives.
– Additional reporting and research by Serkan Ozturk