The facts of the case are still in dispute, but the extraordinary story around the disappearance of Sheikha Latifa al-Maktoum has held the world’s attention.
The daughter of Sheikh Mohammad al-Maktoum, Emir of Dubai, Sheikha Latifa has not been seen for several weeks. The last time anyone confirmed having contact with her was on March 4th.
From below deck on a yacht in the Indian Ocean, Sheikha Latifa reportedly called the British organisation Detained in Dubai, pleading for help whilst stun grenades went off above her. According to The Mirror, she said “Please help. There are men outside. I hear gunshots and I am hiding with my friend.
This was the end of what looks like a daring escape attempt by Sheikha Latifa. Apparently it was not her first. A few days after her disappearance, a video was posted on YouTube, a 40-minute recording of Sheikha Latifa speaking to camera. It had been filmed beforehand, as a form of insurance if she were indeed to disappear.
Detained in Dubai posted it on her behalf. According to the organisation, which assists people in legal trouble in the UAE, Sheikha Latifa had been in touch with them before, sending them copies of her identity documents to prove it was her, and asking for their help in her escape attempt. She said in it that if we were watching it, it meant that she was either dead or in “a very, very bad situation”.
Confirming her identity
Human Rights Watch said friends of the princess have confirmed her identity in the video. In her address to camera, Sheikha Latifa recounts her first attempt to escape from her restrictive life at the age of 16. However, she was stopped at the border and brought back to Dubai.
She said her older sister Shamsa had also escaped once, but had been forcibly brought back, and was still living in detention. After Latifa’s attempted escape as a teenager, she said that she was detained and tortured with regular beatings on the orders of her own father, for over three years. She describes living in a jail cell in filthy conditions, and being kept in solitary confinement.
Sheikha Latifa is the daughter of Sheikh Mohammad al-Maktoum, Emir of Dubai.
It appears that her escape was facilitated by her friend and personal trainer Tiina Jauhiainen, a martial arts expert and a Finnish national. Ms Jauhiainen had befriended the princess, and offered to help. They contacted a dual French-American citizen named Hérvé Jaubert. Mr Jaubert is a colourful character - a former intelligence officer, he had also orchestrated his own dramatic escape from Dubai after a business deal went wrong, by disguising himself in a burqa and then scuba diving out of the country. He wrote a book about the experience, and according to the Daily Mail, it was after reading his book that Sheikha Latifa contacted him to help her escape.
Mr Jaubert lives in the Philippines, but agreed to sail in his private yacht, the Nostromo, to the coast of Oman. At the end of February, it seems that Sheikha Latifa and Ms Jauhiainen travelled to Oman, where they may have been assisted by Christian Elombo. He is a French national and a martial arts instructor who managed a gym in Oman, and he is reportedly a close friend of Ms Jauhiainen.
Sheikha Latifa and Ms Jauhianen met Mr Jaubert at a pick-up point on the Omani coast, where they set sail on the Nostromo for India. According to the Daily Mail, the princess planned to travel from India to Florida, where she had a lawyer ready to process a political asylum claim. She reportedly told Mr Jaubert that she would rather “flip burgers” in America than return to Dubai.
But after a week of sailing, when they were 50 miles off the coast of Goa in India, they saw reconnaissance planes overheard, and found themselves surrounded by the Indian Coastguard. The Coastguard boarded the ship. Ms Jauhiainen and Sheikha Latifa were apparently dragged onto the deck at gunpoint, and then Sheikha Latifa was forced off the boat, and has not been seen since.
Ms Jauhiainen, Mr Jaubert and three Filipino crew members were then reportedly taken back to Dubai on an Emirati military craft, and were detained and interrogated for several days. They were then made to sign confessions in Arabic, which they were unable to read, before being released.
Now a legal challenge to try and secure Sheikha Latifa’s freedom is being mounted by Detained in Dubai, and they are also trying to defend the other individuals caught up in the case, who are facing legal repercussions. But on what grounds is this challenge being mounted, and what are its chances of success?
Al Bawaba spoke to Toby Cadman, a barrister with Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers, who has been instructed by Detained in Dubai to try and secure Sheikha Latifa’s release, as well as to represent Mr Jaubert and Ms Jauhiainen. He said:
““The whereabouts of Sheikha Latifa is currently unknown, however, it is believed that she is in the custody of the UAE authorities, detained against her will. As a consequence, she is subject to ‘Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance’, and further if it is confirmed that she is in the custody of the UAE authorities, she is being ‘Arbitrarily Detained’.
Given the grave circumstances of the detention, and, that which gave rise to Sheikha Latifa taking such drastic measures to flee Dubai in the first instance, the treatment she is alleged to have endured leading up to the abduction and detention may constitute the legal definition of ‘Torture’ on the available evidence."
Appeal to the UN
I have been instructed to pursue an urgent appeal with the UN Special Procedures Branch in Geneva. We have filed an urgent appeal (Communication) with the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. The procedure of the working group is that once a communication is filed, the working group decides whether to transmit the communication to the concerned State. In this case that is the Republic of India and the United Arab Emirates. We alleged that both are responsible for the enforced disappearance of Sheikha Latifa.”
How the case against the UAE will proceed is difficult to know. The UAE has insisted that this is a private family matter, one that is being exploited and twisted by their foreign rivals, particularly Qatar.
Emirati authorities also reportedly accused Mr Jaubert of breaking “Islamic law” by trying to remove Sheikha Latifa from the custody of her family. But the case against India looks set to cause trouble for Delhi – Prime Minister Narendra Modi reportedly signed off the raid of the Nostromo personally, at the behest of the UAE.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi reportedly signed off the raid of the Nostromo personally, at the behest of the UAE /AFP
Al Bawaba consulted Martin Jones, an expert in International Human Rights Law at the University of York, about what legal grounds might make for a case against India. He said:
“India is a party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). Article 3 of the CAT prohibits refoulement of anyone to a place where there are "substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture." Given Sheikha Latifa’s credible account of past torture, and corroborating accounts about the (mis)treatment of political dissidents in the UAE, there would be a prima facie basis for a danger of being subjected torture. India is also bound by customary international law, including the norm against prohibition to both torture and persecution.”
Incident at sea
The incident occurred at sea, and whether it was in international or Indian waters is disputed. But even so, Mr Jones believes there is a legal case against India’s actions.
“While by some accounts the actions occurred outside the territory of India, the prohibition of non-refoulement has been found to apply extra-territorially - at the very least where a state has established "jurisdiction." While India may generally be allowed to expel an unwanted boat from its jurisdiction, it is prohibited from performing such an action in a manner that would result in the return of people to situations of torture and/or persecution.”
But those who tried to help Sheikha Latifa are facing troubles of their own, at the hands of the international police service Interpol. Radha Stirling, the CEO of Detained in Dubai, told Al Bawaba about what has since happened to Christian Elombo, the French national who may have helped Sheikha Latifa leave Oman. Mr Elombo was temporarily detained in an Omani jail shortly after the incident. Mr Stirling said:
“Christian Elombo was freed from Oman, having only been charged with assisting Latifa to leave the country without following normal immigration channels. When he returned legally to Luxembourg, he found himself to be subjected to an Interpol Red Notice for allegations of “kidnapping”. We are in touch with Christian and his family and have provided supporting statements and evidence for the court’s consideration. The Interpol notice was issued by the UAE, 3 days after the country donated $50 million to Interpol.
An Interpol notice for Christian Elombo was issued by the UAE, 3 days after the country donated $50 million to Interpol /AFP
The UAE have become notorious for their abuse of the Interpol system. They routinely report individuals to Interpol over frivolous matters that do not fall within Interpol’s mandate. They are seeking Mr Elombo’s extradition on a false charge of kidnapping, after he was released from an Omani jail for allegedly driving Latifa inside Oman.
They have also reported Herve Jaubert to Interpol, although they themselves released him from custody, essentially as revenge against his having spoken out about everything that happened. This sort of habitual abuse of Interpol is damaging to that organisation’s credibility, and we would welcome more transparency in the way Interpol operates. It is far too easy for individuals to be subjected to Red and Blue Notices on Interpol without the slightest investigation into the validity of the complaints.”
The UAE has insinuated that Detained in Dubai is backed by Qatar and that this is a politically motivated campaign. Mr Stirling responded:
“Neither our organization, nor anyone involved in the campaign to free Latifa has any funding from Qatar, nor any other connection. We ourselves are currently representing clients in Qatar who have been wrongfully imprisoned.”
For now, Sheikha Latifa’s fate remains unknown. What follows will test the power of international law against some extremely powerful nations.
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