Saturday 20 October 2018

Death of a saudi prince's woman

On August 16, Candice Cohen-Ahnine mysteriously fell to her death from her Paris flat, shortly before she was due to visit her daughter, the subject of a custody battle, in Riyadh. Aoife Drew reports

In a cruel, recent version of the enduring real-life story Not Without My Daughter, Candice Cohen-Ahnine, a young French-Jewish woman locked in a bitter custody battle for her daughter with a Saudi prince, lost her life last month. Speculation abounds concerning the circumstances of her tragic death as French police try to piece together information. Whatever the truth may bring, the sad reality is that mother and daughter will never see each other again on this earth.

On August 16, Ms Cohen-Ahnine, aged just 35, was found on a Paris pavement, close to the Champs- Elysees. She had plunged from the fourth floor of the building where she lived in a luxury apartment. A woman residing opposite is said to have witnessed the fall and called an ambulance, but by the time it reached the Paris hospital Pitie Salpetriere with her body, it was already too late.

The witness claims she heard a violent dispute between Ms Cohen-Ahnine and a man, a door slam, and then saw her -- wearing only leggings and a bra -- attempt to climb from the balcony of her bedroom to reach that of the neighbouring apartment. Police have refused to confirm the reports.

It was a heartbreaking end to a dramatic family saga. Last year, Ms Cohen-Ahnine, published a book Rendez-Moi Ma Fille (Give Me Back My Daughter), which details her personal account of trying to win back her daughter Haya, now aged 11, from Saudi Prince Sattam al-Saud (a member of the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia) and her suffering during alleged captivity in a palace in Riyadh after a visit to the Saudi capital in 2008.

The impossible love affair began in 1998, when both were only 20. They met in Browns nightclub in London, when the Prince sent a bottle of Cristal Roederer champagne to her table. They flirted for weeks. He invited her to London's hotspots such as Scalini (one of Lady Diana's favourite Italian restaurants in London) and other locations favoured by the young and wealthy, and the pair was chauffeur-driven around town in the prince's Jaguar.

He went on to offer her jewels, write her poems and charm her family: life was good for the glamorous lovers. She abandoned her law studies to be with him and travelled the world. This charmed existence continued for a couple of years. Then Ms Cohen-Ahnine fell pregnant. She claimed the prince forced to her have an abortion.

"He doesn't care about you and you're trying to trap him with a baby. Go home!" the prince's mother allegedly said.

Although Ms Cohen-Ahnine feared "there could be no future between a Jew and an Arab", the prince managed to persuade her to stay by his side, saying his mother was merely jealous. In 2001, Ms Cohen-Ahnine fell pregnant again and Haya, their daughter, was born. Their relationship wavered, mainly because the prince travelled for long periods away from his family on palace business, sometimes for months at a stretch.

Their relationship nonetheless continued like this for some years. Then in 2006, the prince reportedly announced that he would be forced to marry a cousin in an attempt by his family to improve its image, but suggested that the Frenchwoman could be his second wife.

Utterly appalled at this prospect, she refused and the relationship acrimoniously broke down, leading her to flee back to Paris with Haya.

Mother and child remained in Paris for two years. Then in 2008, she agreed to allow the prince to visit his daughter. He was reportedly contrite for his past behaviour, apologised profusely to Ms Cohen-Ahnine's family, brought Haya and her mother on trips to Euro Disney and persuaded them both to come to Riyadh to visit his family. She accepted, but this turned out to be a decision that would lead to more difficulties than she had ever imagined.

Ms Cohen-Ahnine claimed that immediately on her arrival in the city, her passport was confiscated and she was separated from her daughter, beaten and insulted. She was kept in a room in the palace with no electricity and her head was shaved to prevent parasites, like a prisoner in a concentration camp, while Haya was minded by her paternal grandmother and an aunt.

In her book, she claimed that: "When Haya managed to escape from her room to bring me a piece of bread or a bit of toothpaste, she was hit in front of me." Then one day when a maid left her door open, she took her chances and escaped to the French embassy. She remained protected there for three months and in an attempt to see her daughter, began the process of reconciliation meetings with her ex-partner.

However, these meetings took a turn for the worse when the prince's lawyers presented ostensibly false documents that claimed Ms Cohen-Ahnine had renounced the Muslim religion to become Jewish -- a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. She felt she had no choice but to flee the country, leaving her daughter behind.

Despite all the obstacles, she did not give up the fight to regain custody of her child. She was said to be sickened by photos she found on Haya's Facebook page, dressed in a niqab and playing with a Kalashnikov. In France, the media picked up on the story and Ms Cohen-Ahnine gained public sympathy. With the help of her friend, the photographer and reporter Jean-Claude Elfassi, she wrote and published her book and went through endless legal battles to obtain her goal of seeing her daughter once again.

Finally, in January of this year, after numerous sittings, a French criminal court awarded sole custody of Haya to her overjoyed mother. Prince Sattam al-Saud was ordered to hand Haya back and pay child maintenance of approximately £8,000 a month. However, the court ruling was not enough, despite efforts by the French foreign ministry and then-President Nicolas Sarkozy's office to bring the case to a resolution.

After the hearing, the prince was reported in the French magazine Nouvel Observateur as saying: "What do I care of Sarkozy? If need be, I'll go like bin Laden and hide in the mountains with Haya," and added: "France has not got a right to take her back. She is a Saudi citizen and a princess. They cannot oblige a princess to leave this country."

Since the court's decision, the prince has faced an international arrest warrant for ignoring the custody sentence.

Despite the protection of the courts, Ms Cohen-Ahnine remained anxious. She said the ruling was a "great victory for me and vindicates everything I have said ... but I'm still very worried for my child's future."

This is not surprising considering the complexity of the couple's relationship. The prince flatly denied ever having kidnapped the child or the mother. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, he said: "She was free to come and go as she pleased."

He stated that Ms Cohen-Ahnine left Saudi Arabia for France without even telling the family. He claimed that she said: "Give me €2m and take the daughter. I said, 'No, I don't bargain over my own child. That's when the problem started'."

Although the feud clearly remained fierce, negotiations with the prince had recently led to a slight improvement in relations, according to Ms Cohen-Ahnine's lawyer, Laurence Tarquiny-Charpentier.

The prince had agreed that the French woman could go and visit her daughter in Riyadh in September of this year. Under conditions: the visit was permitted to last only one week and Ms Cohen-Ahnine would be allowed to see Haya for just one hour per day, with witnesses present at all times.

Despite the strings attached, she looked forward to the visit more than anything else. This is why her lawyer was so shocked at her client's sudden death. "We spoke on the telephone the very morning of her death; I was crushed by the news. We had put a lot of energy into her combat. We were in the process of preparing her trip."

She added "Haya is a little girl who has not seen her mother in almost four years. Candice wanted to re-establish contact progressively, restore the mother-daughter relationship. She was happy and impatient at this idea. She was also anxious."

What really happened on August 16? Ms Cohen-Ahnine's friend Jean-Claude Elfassi has written of his "disgust" on his blog. He uses the term "accident" in inverted commas and mentions "troubled circumstances". Her lawyer adds: "I rule out the hypothesis of suicide. She was a woman who was a real fighter and a very positive person, plus, there were plans to see Haya in mid-September. That was her greatest motivation of all."

Following a post-mortem examination, police have suggested that there were "no traces of blows or injuries on her body". There were however, according to the newspaper Liberation, levels of alcohol, cannabis and cocaine in her system. It has also emerged that she was on anti-depressants.

"She took anti-depressants. It's a purely accidental death," said a police source. No matter the cause, a young girl is left without a mother who loved her dearly. Haya has reportedly been informed of her mother's death. Ms Cohen-Ahnine's lawyer sent an official invitation to the Saudi royal family to ask that Haya be permitted to come to her mother's funeral, but this has already taken place, with no sign of her daughter. It is said that her maternal grandparents are hopeful of visiting Riyadh later this year to see her, but so far nothing has been confirmed.

For the relatives of Ms Cohen-Ahnine, it is a dismal end to years of battle and the hopes and dreams of a happier life.

Sunday Indo Living

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