13:02, March 06 255 0 theguardian.com

2020-03-06 13:02:03
The Guardian view on Dubai’s abducted princess: her rights, our laws

When a 19-year-old woman is abducted from the streets of a British city, you would expect the police to investigate – as they duly did. And you would expect the authorities to encourage and support them as normal. The inquiries that began in 2000 progressed quickly, and were revealed by the Guardian a year later. Then they stalled. Now the case is back in the spotlight thanks to an extraordinary ruling by a British judge.

The family court judgment, by Sir Andrew McFarlane, states that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, orchestrated the abduction of two of his daughters, and has deprived them of their liberty. The first, Princess Shamsa, was the teenager snatched in Cambridge; the second, Princess Latifa, was seized from a boat in the Indian Ocean and forcibly returned to Dubai after trying to flee her home in 2018.

The judgment also finds that Sheikh Mohammed acted in a manner “aimed at intimidating and frightening” his sixth wife, Princess Haya bint al-Hussein, and encouraged others to do so on his behalf. When she fled to London last April with the couple’s two young children, he sought to have them returned. Princess Haya responded by seeking a forced marriage protection order, alleging a plan to marry their daughter to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia (though the judge ruled that this point was not proved). The case rested in part on the treatment of her two half-sisters.

The sheikh denies all the allegations against him, and because the judgment was in a family court case, it was made on the balance of probabilities, the civil standard of proof, rather than a verdict being established beyond reasonable doubt, as would be required in a criminal case. Nonetheless, the allegations against him covered “behaviour which is contrary to the criminal law of England and Wales, international law, international maritime law, and internationally accepted human rights norms,” Sir Andrew noted.

They could hardly be more serious. Yet the officer leading the investigation into Princess Shamsa’s disappearance was refused permission to travel to Dubai to interview potential witnesses, when he sought it from the Crown Prosecution Service. The Foreign Office holds information relating to the investigation, but that information has been withheld from the court. It argued that disclosing that material “would reduce the UK government’s ability to protect and promote UK interests through its relations with the UAE which would not be in the public interest”.

The United Arab Emirates is one of Britain’s key allies in the Gulf. (The sheikh, a leading figure in horse racing, is also a friend of the Queen.) Yet can it really be in Britain’s interests to ignore an abduction from our streets? Set against the issue of diplomatic relations are not only basic human rights, but also the law of the land.

The investigation into the kidnapping two decades ago remains live. If the police are blocked from proceeding because the sheikh is a head of state and therefore has sovereign immunity, surely this protection could be tested in court. The question is whether a judge might set aside such an exemption because a person is acting outside of their official role. It would be a dire state of affairs if potentates, or their aides, could enter the country and break laws with apparent impunity. In reality, it is extremely unlikely that the sheikh’s responsibility will ever be weighed in an English criminal court, as it has been in the family court. But in these circumstances, we should know what decisions were reached regarding the case, by whom, and why.