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Saudi sisters Asra and Amaal Alsehli died mysteriously in Canterbury. Here's what we've found

By Mahmood Fazal and Rachael Brown for Background Briefing
Posted , updated 
The bodies of the two sisters were decomposing in the Canterbury apartment for over a month.(ABC RN: Brendan Esposito)

Two women are found mysteriously dead, with the crime scene offering more questions than answers. Some say their deaths reflect a "silent crisis".

Mail has been piling up in the corridor outside an apartment in Canterbury, in Sydney's inner-west.

Neighbours move in and out of the complex, unaware of what lies behind the apartment's door.

Apartment 115 is behind on the rent. So the landlord sends in the sheriff.

Inside the apartment, two sisters from Saudi Arabia are discovered dead.

And they have been dead for more than a month.

Police are called to investigate the crime scene, but it presents more questions than answers.

There are no obvious signs of forced entry to the apartment. Nor signs of injury to the women. The sisters are found in separate rooms, each in their own bed.

Initial autopsy and toxicology reports come back inconclusive.

So, what happened?

Why did the women come here? What, or who, were they running from? And why did they die alone?

Nobody wants to talk

When we first start investigating, we don't even know the sisters' names.

And it seems nobody wants to talk. Our contacts in the Saudi community aren't convinced it's a murder, but if it is, they don't want to be anywhere near it, citing their fear of a "Saudi government presence" in Australia.

As one of our interviewees later puts it: "Saudi Arabia is untouchable. Creates a huge amount of fear."

All we have is an address for the Canterbury apartment. Then, we manage to get inside.

From the outside, there is no sign of the tragedy that took place in the Canterbury apartment.(ABC RN: Brendan Esposito)

It's been more than seven weeks since the bodies were found, but the smell still lingers between the two bedrooms.

On an adjacent shelf there's an open jar of gel that neutralises the odour.

Everything that once filled this apartment has been seized by Homicide or discarded.

The bedrooms' carpet has been replaced by tradesmen who cycle through the room.

The memory of what happened here is being scrubbed out.

Building manager Michael Baird circles the apartment complex, keeping tabs on the tenants.

They see a lot, building managers — comings and goings … and the vagaries of human nature.

Asra Alsehli, 24, and her sister Amaal, 23, moved into apartment 115 in November last year. We will later find out they fled Saudi Arabia in 2017 and had lodged a claim for asylum in Australia before they died.

Canterbury sisters Asra Abdullah Alsehli and Amaal Abdullah Alsehli were found dead in separate beds in their unit in early June. (Supplied: NSW Police)

A source with detailed knowledge of the sisters' situation says they were scared of a male relative, and were afraid he'd come over, or send someone to get them.

Another source, associated with their legal service, said the women believed there was a private investigator following them.

Michael, the building manager, says the sisters were reserved and kept to themselves.

He says his first interaction with them was earlier this year when their black BMW was "keyed".

"We believed that it was not a personal attack to them because they'd parked their car in an unusual position. And somebody's obviously taken offence to it," he says.

But in the months that followed, he grew increasingly concerned.

In late January, the sisters sent him an anxious email asking him to check the building's CCTV cameras, as they feared their food delivery had been tampered with. They told him they were planning to contact the police. When he checked the cameras, Michael found nothing.

The building manager says the women told him they feared their food had been tampered with.(ABC RN: Brendan Esposito)

"The girls were very, very scared. Very afraid of something. And we're not sure what it was — something, someone … they didn't tell us," he says.

In late March, a plumber was called to the apartment to assess a water leak. As soon as he finished his work, he phoned Michael.

He said the sisters stayed in the corner of their front room the whole 10 minutes he was there and didn't say a word.

"[The plumber] was concerned that there was something untoward happening in the apartment," says Michael.

"He goes, 'I don't know. Something definitely wrong with that apartment. Something definitely happening in that place is not good'."

"'The girls look scared for some reason. I don't want to go back.'"

People in the local area provided small glimpses into the lives of Amaal and Asra.(ABC RN: Brendan Esposito)

Michael called the police asking them to conduct a welfare check on the two women. But they wouldn't unlock the door, he says.

"Eventually the door was opened and the police stood at the door, asking the girls a series of questions. They said they were OK. They didn't want any police involvement. And the police left it at that."

Still concerned, Michael went to the apartment with his day manager under the guise of looking for a leak. And what he saw has stuck with him ever since.

"I went into the unit, I saw these two little girls stuck in the corner, like two little sparrows," he says.

"Really, I was looking to make sure there was nobody in the unit as well that was … causing them to be afraid or timid.

"I 'fessed up and said, 'Look, I'm not really here to look at a leak. I'm here to talk to you … Just tell me whatever it is. It's OK."

But, he says, the women wouldn't speak.

"They more or less wanted us to leave as quickly as possible."

The next time Michael Baird was called into the apartment, Asra and Amaal were dead.

"The whole thing strikes me as strange. Right? I think it's very rare for two people, two sisters, two young women, to decide to end their lives, if that's indeed what happened," he says.

The search

Outside the apartment, a flurry of cars rushes along Canterbury Road.

Hunting for more clues, we buzz neighbours' apartments for details.

Neighbours rarely saw the two women and knew little about their lives.(ABC RN: Brendan Esposito)

The person who lived next door to the sisters is willing to speak. But they know very little about the women.

"Only seen one of them once leaving the car park," says the neighbour. "Quite strange, because they live in the apartment next to me. I would assume I'd have seen them at least once leaving or entering."

We approach a group of tradesmen standing at the door of the apartment block. Among them, a worker, who knew the building well. He reveals he'd been inside the apartment once the bodies were removed and proceeds to describe what he saw. One detail struck him as a bit odd. Two crucifix necklaces were lying on the floor of one of the bedrooms.

The find is unexpected.

Islam is the state religion in Saudi Arabia and if non-Muslims seek to become citizens they must convert to Islam.

It's unclear whether the sisters had converted to Christianity, or whether the necklaces meant something else entirely. But the discovery puzzled that worker, who also volunteers another piece of information; in the weeks before the sisters' death, he saw a stranger in the lobby — on two separate occasions.

He describes the man as having a Middle Eastern appearance, and says he approached him to ask which apartment he was from. "115, he said". The apartment where the sisters were supposedly living alone.

When the bodies were found, the worker promptly reported the incident to police.

With the investigation in full swing, the police wouldn't be drawn on the specifics of the case and wouldn't confirm whether crucifixes were found in the apartment nor whether they were aware of the presence of a man in the building's lobby.

The sisters used to visit their neighbouring service station several times a week. A worker said they hadn't seen them for about three months.(ABC RN: Brendan Esposito)

At the apartment block, we've run out of people to talk to. We decide to head back to the office. As we're standing waiting for a cab, something really weird happens.

A car pulls up at the lights. Its driver pulls an iPhone out and takes a photograph of us. In a slow, deliberate fashion, like he wanted us to know, "I'm watching you".

The sense of paranoia we've detected in everyone we've spoken to, or tried to speak to, begins closing in.

Finding friends

The sisters had a very scarce presence online. But when we run a search of their names, we find both sisters had ABNs, and that leads us to an address in Smithfield, in Western Sydney.

On Google Street View, a snapshot from November 2019 reveals a black BMW parked in the driveway. The car is the same make and model as the BMW they were driving while they lived in their Canterbury unit.

A BMW was seized by police from the Canterbury apartment where the sisters lived, on the first floor above this restaurant.(ABC RN: Brendan Esposito)

At the Smithfield address, we meet a Syrian family, with the daughter, Rita, acting as translator for her parents.

They confirm the sisters lived in a granny flat beneath their house for around 18 months.

"The girls were really nice. They were just really good people," Rita says.

"They moved to this house because it was closer to their TAFE. And they usually stayed up all night and only slept in the morning."

According to Rita, the sisters were studying traffic management, and worked for a construction company, holding road signs.

They lived a discreet life and didn't have visitors — except for one man, the older sister Asra's boyfriend, "An Iraqi man with a beard," Rita recalls.

That made us tick …

Late in 2018, Asra Alsehli took out an apprehended domestic violence order against a Fairfield man, only to drop it in January 2019. The name the court gave us is an Iraqi one.

Could the subject of that AVO be Asra's boyfriend, or someone else altogether? We don't know.

We later try to contact the man whose name appeared on the AVO but hear nothing back.

Keen to help, Rita's parents pick up the phone and dial the Smithfield house's landlord. He's someone else who had direct contact with Asra and Amaal.

He tells us the sisters came to this house in October 2018, through a refugee settlement service.

"I said to my wife, I feel bad for these girls, young girls by themselves. I was surprised when they came to rent it, they looked like kids, especially the youngest one, she looked like she was only about 13."

He was devastated to hear of their deaths.

Rita, who's been listening in on the conversation, says she learnt of the sisters' deaths on Facebook. She hadn't spoken to them since she waved them goodbye nearly two years ago.

ABC RN's Mahmood Fazal and Rachael Brown have been trying to find answers around the deaths of Asra and Amaal.(ABC RN: Brendan Esposito)

Women who flee

We want to know more about how the sisters might have felt in the months and years leading up to their deaths. So we meet with another woman who fled Saudi Arabia. She's asked us to use the name "Hayat".

Hayat was in her 20s and had lost her faith in Islam when she decided to leave Saudi Arabia "to be free as a woman".

She says to board the plane, she had to obtain permission from her father, so she made up a story about where she was going.

"I felt so scared because at any moment my family could find out and I could be forced to go back."

Border officials who suspect a Saudi woman intends to claim asylum can cancel her visa and detain her at the airport.

"There were some who got caught in Malaysian airports. Some of them in, as far as I remember, Philippines, others in Thailand," Hayat says.

"Some of them, they even arrived to Sydney Airport and were turned back because they asked for asylum in the airport, and no-one [has] heard anything from them since."

Hayat arrived at the airport terrified, not knowing a single person in Australia.

"I remember … crying because I was seeing other people, their relatives are waiting for them in the airport and they were hugging and kissing, and I'm like, 'I know no-one here'."

Hayat is one of the 75 Saudi Arabian women who've been granted permanent protection visas in Australia since mid-2017.

Many of them fled the country's guardianship laws, which allow their male relatives to control their lives.

Hayat says the sisters would likely have been living in fear, like she has been, that someone in their family may drag them home.

"Sometimes I will be walking around and think: 'That looks like someone in my family.' I'm always concerned," she says.

The sisters would peer out this window to monitor who was entering and leaving the building.(ABC RN: Brendan Esposito)

Hayat's heard stories of Saudi students or workers who feed information back to their government.

As recently as June, the FBI arrested a Saudi student, whose visa application said he worked for the Saudi royal court, after he threatened dissidents in the US and Canada.

"I heard years ago they were chasing young girls," Hayat says. "And telling them … 'We'll give you free education. You can go to the US, you know, on a scholarship. We can do that for you. We can provide you with free accommodation.'

"One of the girls believed them and she went and they said, 'You will just have a stopover in Riyadh and then from Riyadh to US. And then she was held at the airport in Riyadh and no-one heard anything from her since."

(Without names or dates, we couldn't corroborate this anecdote.)

So why are families so desperate to track down women who flee? Hayat says they bring shame to their families.

"People will be like: 'Oh, OK, your daughter ran away, then you were not strong enough to discipline your daughter.' And kids will get bullied at school because of their sister. And also, this is very important, because if one girl escapes, then her sister might not get married as well because no-one wants them, because she will probably be like her sister."

In 2018, two sisters who fled Saudi Arabia were found bound together on the banks of the Hudson River in New York, drowned. The deaths were classed as suicides, and law enforcement sources said the sisters would rather do harm to themselves than return to their home country.

When we ask Hayat if the same fate could have claimed the Alsehli sisters, she gives a candid answer.

"[There's] nothing worse than living in Saudi Arabia for a woman, honestly. And I did think myself about suicide, but only when I was in Saudi Arabia. I never thought about it when I came here."

We will hear this view again and again from Saudi women we speak to. That they've already been through the worst trauma of their lives.

And a lawyer who represents these women echoes their feelings, saying: "For the profile of women that I deal with, [suicide] just doesn't ring true."

"For women to have been through … horrific abuse — we're talking rapes where you have to be hospitalised … daily continual beatings … sexual abuse by multiple members of a family — to then get to a safe country where you can start to explore who you might be and what your potential might be, particularly with a supportive sibling … Very difficult to think that that might be suicide."

'A silent crisis'

While we chase the pasts of two young women who still largely seem like ghosts to us, a source tells us there are countless more like them who you'll never hear about.

Jana Favero is the director of advocacy and campaigns at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. When she heard the news about the Alsehli sisters, she felt a deep sense of despair.

"I really felt a deep sadness that two young women had died who were seeking asylum, who were in our care, who were in Australia seeking protection and should have been supported by our system," she says.

The centrepiece of that system is something called Status Resolution Support Services, or SRSS. It's a small income stream — about $35 a day — designed to help asylum seekers survive while their claims are being processed.

Jana Favero says that since 2018, the federal government has slashed the program's funding.

"It went from about $140 million in 2017-2018 in the budget to $33 million in 2021-2022 to be able to provide those services," she says.

Of Jana's approximately 7,000 clients, only 100 can now access SRSS support.

For Asra and Amaal, that would've meant losing about $500 a week between them — almost as much as their rent.

The sisters were many weeks behind on rent before their deaths. Their apartment cost more than $500 a week.(ABC RN: Brendan Esposito)

"What we've seen at ASRC is when people are cut off from SRSS, it forces them into a life of destitution and poverty," Jana says.

"It forces them into homelessness because that amount of money, as small as it is, is the difference between being able to have one meal a day or not."

Jana says the sisters' tragic fate is indicative of a silent crisis; the number of people who have lost their lives while waiting on protection visa decisions.

"They turned to us for protection, for safety, and they've lost their lives. It's an absolute stain on our history."

We tell her of the brick walls we've hit trying to find the name of the lawyer handling the sisters' asylum claim.

"The system is set up that way," she responds.

"To keep asylum seekers voiceless, and invisible. Even if you found their lawyer, they're not allowed to talk to you."

The family

Seven weeks after the sisters' bodies were discovered, NSW Police convenes a press conference, and finally confirms the names of the sisters. Police release photographs in a bid to attract more information.

"Any information, no matter how small you think it might be, might help us work out the circumstances leading up to the deaths of Asra and Amaal," Detective Inspector Claudia Allcroft says.

Police are waiting on the coroner's report, she says. The sisters' causes of death are still undetermined and all avenues are open.

We ask if the Alsehli family will be coming over to Australia. "The family have instructed the Saudi consulate to act on their behalf," she says.

We put an interview request and specific questions to the Saudi consulate in Sydney — to be passed to the Alsehli family — but have not received a reply.

The women were not well-known by many people in the neighbourhood.(ABC RN: Brendan Esposito)

Seeking hope

Reflecting on the deaths of the sisters, Hayat recalls the years she spent feeling like an outsider in her new home.

"It's a very individualist society," she says of Australia. "No-one looks at you. Your neighbour doesn't check on you.

"I tried twice during Christmas, because this is in my culture, to send some sweets to all my neighbours."

Despite including handwritten cards to each neighbour, she says she didn't receive a single reply.

"When I first came to Australia, I was scared like something would happen and I'd die and no-one knows who I am."

Who were Asra and Amaal? Five weeks into our investigation we still don't know.

Their case is riddled with question marks, questions that obscure the portrait of who they were and who they wanted to be.

If this story has raised any issues for you phone Lifeline on 13 11 14.

This story comes from ABC RN's Background Briefing program. Follow the podcast on the ABC listen app.

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Posted , updated