(Beirut) – United Arab Emirates (UAE) authorities should secure the freedom of two daughters of the ruler of Dubai, who a United Kingdom court found are being confined against their will, Human Rights Watch said today.

On March 5, 2020, a UK family court published its ruling that it found the Dubai ruler, Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, arranged the abduction and forcible return of his daughters, Sheikha Shamsa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, 38, and Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, 35, to the UAE.

“Abducting family members abroad and continuing to confine them shows the extent to which UAE rulers behave as if they are unaccountable for their actions and above the law,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The UAE authorities should immediately free Sheikha Shamsa and Sheikha Latifa, allow them to leave the UAE if they wish, investigate their abduction and allegations of torture, and bring those responsible to account.”

The UK High Court Family Division’s 34-page fact-finding ruling pertained to the decisions relating to the residence status and contact arrangements of the two young children of Sheikh Mohammed and his former wife, Princess Haya bint al-Hussein of Jordan. Princess Haya fled with them to the UK in April 2019, and Sheikh Mohammed sought the children’s return at the UK high court in May.

The court concluded that Sheikh Mohammed, who is also the UAE prime minister, had previously orchestrated separate international abductions of his two adult daughters from a different marriage – Sheikha Shamsa and Sheikha Latifa. The court said that he forcibly returned them to the UAE, and “continues to maintain a regime whereby both these two young women are deprived of their liberty.”

In response to Sheikh Mohammed’s petition for the return of his children at the UK High Court, Princess Haya stated that he had harassed and intimidated her, affecting her welfare and that of her two children, now ages 12 and 7. The judgment accepted Princess Haya’s allegations about Sheikh Mohammed’s campaign of harassment and intimidation against her.

They included that Sheikh Mohammed divorced Princess Haya without informing her in February 2019, that a helicopter pilot under instructions tried “at least to intimidate her if not actually to remove her” to a prison in Awir by helicopter in March 2019, arranged for guns to be left in her bedroom, threatened to seize their children, and published intimidating poems about her online. She also contended that Sheikh Mohammed’s abuses against Sheikha Shamsa and Sheikha Latifa were relevant to any arrangements for Sheikh Mohammed to be in contact with Princess Haya’s children, including a risk of abduction.

The court found that Sheikha Shamsa had fled the Dubai family’s UK estate in Surrey in 2000, but that men who work for or assisted Sheikh Mohammed later captured her in Cambridge and forcibly returned her to Dubai, where she remains in captivity. The judgment details the UK Cambridgeshire police investigation of those events and notes that the Crown Prosecution Service in the UK refused the chief inspector’s request to interview potential witnesses in Dubai.

The court noted that the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office holds information relevant to that request but refused to disclose it to the High Court, contending that it would harm the UK’s relationship with the UAE.

The judgment detailed two unsuccessful attempts by Sheikha Latifa to flee the UAE. It states that after the first, in 2002, when she was stopped as she attempted to cross the border into Oman, her father imprisoned her in Dubai for over three years. In late February 2018, she attempted to flee by boat. But on March 4, 2018, Indian forces working in coordination with the UAE captured her at sea off the Indian coast and forcibly returned her and her companions to the UAE. She remains detained in Dubai in family accommodations, the court ruling says.

Shortly after her capture, a pre-recorded 40-minute video surfaced on social media in which Latifa states that if people are watching the video, “either I’m dead, or I’m in a very, very, very bad situation.” In the video, Latifa recounts her previous escape attempt, her sister Shamsa’s continued confinement, and her reasons for fleeing. The judge also felt confident about the account Latifa gave of her detention following the first escape attempt. Latifa says in the video that during her imprisonment: “…It was constant torture, constant torture, even when they weren’t physically beating me up, they were torturing me.”

In May 2018, Human Rights Watch documented Latifa’s escape attempt and said that the authorities should reveal her whereabouts. Just hours before the publication of the BBC documentary “Escape from Dubai” on December 6, 2018 about Latifa’s escape attempt, the Dubai Ruler’s court issued a statement that Latifa was safe with her family and suggested that she had been kidnapped instead of trying to escape.

In late December 2018, the UAE Foreign Affairs Ministry published another statement with photos showing Latifa, saying that the photos served to rebut “false allegations” and to provide evidence that Latifa was living at home with her family. The High Court detailed Princess Haya’s interactions with Latifa in late 2019 and early 2020, including a report from Princess Haya that she had seen Latifa confined to a locked and gated house. The judge rejected the allegation by the UAE authorities that Latifa had been kidnapped by individuals from the UAE instead of attempting to escape.

“Given these findings, the UK and India should take steps to investigate how these acts may constitute crimes in their jurisdiction, and the wider international community should call for the release of the two sisters,” said Begum.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that everyone has the right to liberty; freedom from torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and the right to leave any country, including their own. By allowing the continued forced confinement of the two women and the lack of investigation into the abduction and allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, the UAE will also be in breach of its obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention against Torture.

Women in the UAE face severe discrimination in law and practice. UAE’s family law requires a woman to obtain her male guardian’s consent to marry and for married women to “obey” their husbands. A woman may be considered disobedient if she works without her husband's consent. She can lose her right to financial support if she has no “lawful excuse” when she refuses to have sex with her husband, refuses to travel abroad with him, “abandons” the home, or prohibits her husband from entering the home.

Men can unilaterally divorce their wives whereas women need to apply to a court for a divorce. Human Rights Watch has also documented police failure to properly investigate allegations of domestic violence in the UAE.

“Latifa and Shamsa’s plight has received international attention and media coverage, but there are many more women in the UAE who face domestic violence, forced confinement, and severe discrimination with nowhere to turn,” Begum said. “The UAE should take steps to end discrimination against women in law and practice and enact measures to protect women from violence.”