Saturday 23 February 2019

The mysterious story of Princess Latifa, her reported escape from Dubai and her meeting with Mary Robinson

Kim Bielenberg on what prompted Mary Robinson to visit Dubai princess Shikha Latifa

Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, a daughter of Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, left, meets Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland. Photo: United Arab Emirates Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation via AP
Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, a daughter of Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, left, meets Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland. Photo: United Arab Emirates Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation via AP
Foiled: Princess Latifa's father and stepmother, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Princess Haya (centre) at Ascot racecourse in England
Concern: Princess Latifa looks on during her recent lunch with Mary Robinson
Tiina Jauhiainen, who helped in Latifa's escape
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

It is hard not to be moved by a video recorded early last year by Princess Latifa, daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the fabulously wealthy ruler of Dubai.

The sad-eyed, articulate 32-year-old woman with gleaming white teeth gazes dolefully at the camera and says: "If you are watching this video, it is not such a good thing.

"Either I'm dead or I'm in a very, very, very bad situation."

According to those who are campaigning on her behalf, Princess Latifa recorded the haunting video in preparation for her attempted escape from Dubai in March of last year.

Concern: Princess Latifa looks on during her recent lunch with Mary Robinson
Concern: Princess Latifa looks on during her recent lunch with Mary Robinson

The video, sent by Latifa to an American lawyer, was to be released to the world in the event that she was recaptured, as she tried to get away from the emirate.

That is how events played out. Latifa's bid to get away was reportedly foiled close to the coast of India, and the video was publicly released.

The story of what happened to Latifa has alarmed human rights campaigners, and has embroiled the former President Mary Robinson in controversy.

Princess Latifa vanished in mysterious circumstances in March amid reports that she was seized by commandos as she crossed the Indian Ocean on a yacht, having fled the emirate on a boat skippered by a former French intelligence officer Hervé Jaubert.

She was accompanied during the escape by her close friend, a Finnish martial arts instructor, Tiina Jauhiainen.

Nothing was heard from Latifa since her reported capture on board the boat - until Mary Robinson visited Dubai in December, at the invitation of Princess Haya, a wife of Sheikh Mohammed and Latifa's stepmother.

Tiina Jauhiainen, who helped in Latifa's escape
Tiina Jauhiainen, who helped in Latifa's escape

Photos were released of Mrs Robinson having a lunch with Latifa in Dubai. The former president smiles for the camera, while the frail-looking princess betrays little emotion.

In an interview with the BBC 12 days after the visit, Robinson said the princess was a "troubled young woman" who is receiving psychiatric care.

Apparently contradicting claims by advocacy groups that the princess was possibly being detained against her will, the former president said the princess is "in the loving care of her family".

Robinson insisted in recent days that she travelled to Dubai to meet Latifa "in good faith", but the nature of the visit, apparently paid for by the Dubai royal family, has been criticised by the campaign groups Human Rights Watch and Detained in Dubai.

Foiled: Princess Latifa's father and stepmother, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Princess Haya (centre) at Ascot racecourse in England
Foiled: Princess Latifa's father and stepmother, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Princess Haya (centre) at Ascot racecourse in England

Toby Cadman, a barrister instructed by Detained in Dubai to act on behalf of the princess, told Review: "I am extremely disappointed that she would lend herself to what has been interpreted as a whitewash.

"We have requested an independent assessment of [Princess Latifa's] state of mind and her physical well-being. It's up to the United Nations to be satisfied that she is not being detained against her will."

Contacted by Review this week, Latifa's close friend Tiina Jauhiainen told of her mixed emotions as she finally heard news of the princess's whereabouts after a long period of silence.

The pair have not seen each other since they reportedly fled Dubai last March on the yacht Nostromo, and were captured by Indian and Emirati commandos who boarded the boat.

Jauhiainen, who first met the princess in 2010, told Review: "Seeing the photos gave me a sense of relief because it validated the past and showed that she was still alive.

"However, it left me with an overwhelming feeling of confusion as to what it means for the future."

Jauhiainen, who was hired as Princess Latifa's instructor in capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art, added: "I still don't know if she's safe - or whether she is being detained against her will. That uncertainty makes me feel incredibly sad."

Disturbing allegations

The mysterious story of Princess Latifa and her reported escape from Dubai were highlighted by a documentary shown by the BBC in early December, just days before Robinson's visit to Dubai.

The programme carries extensive interviews with witnesses to the escape and capture of the princess, including Tiina, the skipper of the boat Hervé Jaubert and crew members.

In the video recorded before she left Dubai, Latifa makes disturbing allegations about how she was treated in the emirate.

As the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed is one of the richest men in the world with a fortune estimated at €18bn.

The Maktoum family are among the biggest landowners in Ireland. With their extensive stud farms and horse racing interests in Kildare and Tipperary, they own up to 5,000 acres.

Sheikh Mohammed, a familiar figure on racecourses in Britain and Ireland, has succeeded in projecting an image of Dubai as a modern go-ahead business hub, popular with sun-seeking tourists.

But the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is part, has been heavily criticised by campaigners because of the authoritarian nature of the regime and its poor human rights record.

The campaign group Human Rights Watch, which has taken up Latifa's case, highlights the arbitrary detention of critics of the regime, the use of torture, the treatment of migrant workers and discrimination against women.

Princess Latifa presents a disturbing picture of the regime in the video, which was released by campaigners after her reported escape bid failed.

She alleges she had previously tried to escape from Dubai in 2002, but her attempt to get away was foiled when she was stopped at the border.

Latifa alleged that she was then imprisoned for three years and four months. She claimed that during that time she was tortured, beaten and kept in solitary confinement.

Princess Latifa tells in the video how her movements were still heavily restricted after she was released from prison following the first escape.

She says she was not allowed to drive or leave the country, and her driver had to know where she was at all times.

The BBC documentary tells how in the face of these restrictions, she made another more elaborate plan for an escape from Dubai. She was reportedly planning this getaway for up to seven years.

Sending messages from an internet café, she got in touch with Hervé Jaubert, the former French intelligence officer.

He himself had escaped from the United Arab Emirates, after falling foul of the authorities, crossing the Indian Ocean in a boat.

With Tiina Jauhiainen in on the act, the Princess and her French accomplice plotted Latifa's getaway.

The plan was for Latifa and Tiina to drive to the neighbouring state of Oman, meet Jaubert's yacht out at sea, cross the ocean to India and then fly to the United States.

On February 24 last year, Princess Latifa and Tiina met in a café, following a normal routine to deflect attention, and then after Latifa had changed her clothes they drove across the border into Oman.

After a difficult trip by jet ski and dinghy, they succeeded in reaching the French skipper on the Nostromo, and they set off on the long journey across the ocean.

As well as Latifa, Tiina and Jaubert, there were also Filipino crew members on board, who witnessed what later transpired.

Soon after Latifa and Tiina went on board, the princess and Hervé Jaubert were keen to get in touch with campaigners helping those imprisoned in Dubai so that they knew what had happened to Latifa.

Radha Stirling, chief executive of Detained in Dubai, told Review: "Latifa telephoned me and WhatsApped me from the boat in the days before she was apprehended."

In an introductory message, Latifa says: "I got your contact from a friend. My name is Latifa Al Maktoum. The time is ticking and they have a target on my head - this is a very urgent message."

It took some time for Stirling to confirm that these messages, purporting to be from an escaped princess, were genuine. But she was eventually satisfied that they were authentic and that this was a cry for help.

In his account of the journey in the BBC documentary, Jaubert told how he began to notice that the boat was being followed as it crossed the ocean.

He also spotted a surveillance plane circling overhead, and alerted Latifa.

According to Tiina, the princess became more nervous as they approached Indian waters, and this apprehension proved to be well justified.

On March 4, soon after 10pm, Tiina and the princess were in the cabin when they heard what they thought were gunshots.

They locked themselves in the bathroom and Stirling says she then talked to Latifa over the phone and could hear the noises.

Stirling told Review what Latifa said at that point: "There are men outside. I don't know what's going on - I can hear gunshots. Please help me."

Commandos had boarded the boat and Hervé Jaubert said they put a gun to his head and then beat him up. Initially those who boarded were Indian, but according to Jaubert, they were then joined by Emiratis.

Tiina, Jaubert and the crew of the boat were then taken to the United Arab Emirates for a time before being released, but nothing was heard from Latifa until Mary Robinson's visit.

According to Tiina, the last she saw of the princess, she was being dragged away kicking and screaming.

In the wake of the Robinson visit this week, Tiina Jauhiainen told Review: "As Latifa was able to predict, they would try discredit her by calling into question her mental stability. That is deplorable."

Tiina was struck by the appearance of her friend in the pictures publicised on the news wires.

"The photos left me more concerned than relieved, as Latifa clearly looks unhappy and shaken," she says.

Contacted by Review, Mary Robinson's spokesperson Bride Rosney said the former president "is declining to make any further comment on this issue at this time".

Robinson explained in a BBC interview why she had flown to meet the princess. She said she had been asked by Princess Haya, one of Sheikh Mohammed's wives and someone she had known for a long time, to come to Dubai to help with a "family dilemma".

Robinson has said she has known and worked with Princess Haya for many years in her capacity as a member of the UN Global Humanitarian Forum and as a UN Messenger of Peace.

Princess Haya, who is the daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan, is a well-known figure in equestrian circles as a former showjumper. She lived in Ireland for a time in the 1990s and competed in the RDS horse show.

'She's troubled'

Robinson said of the meeting with Latifa: "The dilemma was that Latifa is vulnerable. She's troubled. She made a video that she now regrets and she planned an escape, or was part of a plan of escape..."

Robinson told in the BBC interview how she had lunch with Latifa, Haya and others, and was able to "assess the situation".

After the meeting involving Robinson, the United Arab Emirates government issued a statement saying it had delivered a communiqué regarding Princess Latifa to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights' Office of Special Procedures.

"The communiqué responds to and rebuts false allegations and provided evidence that Her Highness Sheikha Latifa was at home and living with her family in Dubai."

The statement said: "During her visit to Dubai, Mary Robinson was reassured that HH Sheikha Latifa is receiving the necessary care and support she requires."

But the visit was criticised by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. Ken Roth, executive director of the group, said on Twitter: "A brief interview in the presence of the family that allegedly kidnapped her, after who knows what treatment she endured in the past nine months of incommunicado detention, is no way to determine the current mental health or desires of Dubai Princess Latifa."

Robinson will be back in Dubai in March to promote her book Climate Justice at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

But the reported plight of Princess Latifa and the disregard for human rights and the rights of women in the gulf state will prompt questions whether her involvement in the case at the invitation of Dubai royal family was at best ill-judged.

 

Robinson’s response to media reports

Former President Mary Robinson said in a statement on the case on December 28:

“I undertook the visit and made an assessment, not a judgment, based on personal witness, in good faith and to the best of my ability.”

She added: “At the request of Princess Haya bint Hussein, one of the wives of the UAE prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, I visited Dubai on  December 15 to meet with Her Highness Sheikha Latifa.

“I have known and worked with Princess Haya for many years in her capacity as a member of the UN Global Humanitarian Forum and as a UN Messenger of Peace.

“I was aware of the international concern over Sheikha Latifa and that she had not been seen for many months so when Princess Haya asked me to go to Dubai to meet with both of them I agreed, without hesitation.

“On my arrival in Dubai, I received extensive briefings and it was clear to me that Princess Haya had particular concern for the welfare of Sheikha Latifa whom she described as troubled and quite vulnerable.

“During my time with her, Sheikha Latifa presented as a very likeable young woman with a wide range of interests but her vulnerability was apparent.”

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