The United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) said on Friday it has asked the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to furnish proof that Princess Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, the 35-year-old daughter of Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, is alive and well.
Latifa attempted to flee the UAE in February 2018 and has not been seen in public since she was captured at sea in a special forces raid. The BBC on Monday aired a series of videos she recorded on a smuggled cell phone in which she described herself as a “hostage” and said she feared for her life.
According to Latifa’s friends and supporters, she began planning her escape from Dubai in 2011 with the assistance of French businessman Herve Jaubert and her Finnish personal trainer, Tiina Jauhiainen.
Jauhiainen told the BBC she and Latifa used an inflatable boat and a jet ski to reach a U.S.-flagged yacht in international waters on February 24, 2018, but the yacht was boarded by commandos eight days later off the coast of India. The commandos used smoke grenades to flush the two women out of hiding, threw Jauhiainen and the crew of the ship into detention in Dubai for two weeks, and took the princess to an unknown fate.
In March 2020, a family court in the United Kingdom heard testimony that the soldiers who abducted Latifa were Indian special forces troops, working on behalf of Sheikh Mohammed. Jauhiainen testified at the hearing that the Indian soldiers ignored Latifa’s pleas for international asylum and dragged her away screaming, “You can’t get me back alive! Don’t take me back! Shoot me here, don’t take me back!” The Indian troops then handed all the prisoners from the yacht over to Emirati forces.
The UAE has been highly evasive when questioned about Latifa’s well-being over the past three years, describing her as mentally unsound and in the loving care of her family.
Former U.N. human rights envoy Mary Robinson saw Latifa at a lunch two months before her escape attempt; the Emirati government later used photos of that meeting as proof the princess was safe. Robinson said she was “stunned” by the “horrible” deception. She also said Emirati officials falsely told her Latifa has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
In a TV special this week about the “missing princess,” the BBC displayed clips from videos Latifa said she surreptitiously recorded on a smuggled smartphone in her locked bathroom. Among other things, she described being physically manhandled and drugged during her capture, said she has been held alone in a villa with barred doors and windows for years, and feared she would “never see the sun again.”
“All the windows are barred shut. There’s five policemen outside and two policewomen inside the house. And I can’t even go outside to get any fresh air. I’m doing this video from a bathroom, because this is the only room with a door I can lock. I’m a hostage. I am not free. I’m enslaved in this jail. My life is not in my hands,” she said in a video recorded in April 2019.
“No trial, no charge. Nothing,” she said in another video. “I’m reaching a point where I’m getting so tired of everything. It’s like a circus … I just want to be free. I don’t know what they’re planning on doing with me. The situation is getting more desperate every day.”
“They want propaganda from me. They wanted me to do a video and say that I’m here happily and voluntarily, and I refused. I don’t know what can happen to me and how long this will last – and if they decide to release me, like how my life would be – but I’m not safe at all,” she said in another recorded message.
Latifa’s friends say she stopped sending videos or responding to text messages six months ago.
The UK Guardian noted that Latvia made a previous attempt to escape in 2002 when she was 16 years old and her older sister Shamsa was kidnapped by armed agents of the UAE from the streets of Cambridge, England, after she fled from her family’s British estate in 2000. Shamsa has never been seen in public again.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday he was “concerned” for Latifa’s welfare after viewing the BBC report, while British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said he was “deeply troubled” and wanted proof she is “alive and well.”
Both Johnson and Raab indicated the U.N. was looking into the situation and the U.K. would follow its lead. The situation is delicate for the British government because Sheikh Mohammed, one of the world’s richest men, has extensive holdings and partnerships in the U.K. and is friendly with the royal family. Queen Elizabeth was reportedly dismayed by the March 2020 court hearing and distanced herself from Mohammed in its aftermath.
The UNHCR announced on Friday it has discussed the situation with the UAE’s mission to the United Nations in Geneva and asked for more information about her condition.
“We raised our concerns about the situation in light of the disturbing video evidence that emerged this week. We have asked for a proof of life. We have asked for further information,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Liz Throssell.
Rodney Dixon, the lawyer who brought Latifa’s case to the United Nations, said he hoped a UNHCR investigation would “be decisive in finally getting Princess Latifa released,” urging U.N. representatives to “have a very serious meeting directly” with her captors.
Human rights advocates and friends of Latifa are urging the U.S. government to get more involved in her case, citing Saudi Arabia’s release of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul last week as evidence that pressure from Washington can sway the Arab monarchies.
“The only level of people that are going to have enough influence to effectively force Latifa’s father to open her jail are people like Joe Biden, and there’s very few of them. And he’s also shown that he can do it with Saudi,” Dubai-based human rights activist David Haigh told the Associated Press on Wednesday, crediting the Biden administration’s suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia with securing Loujain al-Hathloul’s release.