On the night of March 4th, 2018, an unprecedented international incident took place in which significant Indian and UAE military force converged to carry out an unprovoked attack on a small, American yacht off the coast of Goa, India. This force – consisting of at least two state-of-the-art ships from the Indian Coast Guard, a UAE Navy frigate, hundreds of men, including an elite commando unit and a detachment of the UAE state security forces, as well as helicopters and surveillance planes – was sent to illegally kidnap and capture one young woman.
On that night, Indian commandos boarded the US-flagged Nostromo, assaulted the crew, and dragged the target of their operation away, illegally ignoring her desperate pleas for asylum. They did this despite the clear fact that attacking a sovereign vessel in international waters is a violation of accepted international laws. They undertook this action at the direction of Latifa’s father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the unelected ruler of Dubai. Latifa’s desire for freedom was brutally, violently crushed that night.
“They told me, ‘your father told us to beat you until we kill you. That’s his orders. Your father’s orders. Your father, the ruler of Dubai, that’s what he said.’” —Latifa
Every individual, regardless of background, has the right of self-determination. That right was snatched from Latifa in what was effectively a state-sponsored kidnapping. Much is at stake in our campaign to give Latifa the right to safely leave Dubai. Personal rights, in particular women’s rights, will suffer a setback if Latifa is not freed.
Despite growing up in a gilded cage, Latifa was forever treated, just as so many other women are, like a child, a mere possession of men surrounding her, instead of an adult capable of making her own choices. The royal palace may be opulent, but for Latifa, and her older sister Shamsa, it is place where she has been imprisoned, abused and tortured on the orders of her father simply for seeking freedom. A place where she is once again detained against her will, likely drugged and again being mistreated. This place is Dubai in the 21st century, a city selling itself as modern, tolerant and a safe business and tourism destination, yet behind the glittering façade of gleaming skyscrapers, bustling shopping malls, and global brands like Emirates Airlines, lies the sinister threat of human rights violations, corruption and the ever-present eye of a surveillance-heavy police state.
Latifa planned her bid for freedom over the course of many years. A part of her plan included making video recordings in case her plan failed. One of the several recordings she made is a 40-minute video chronicling her harrowing experiences and her dreams of a brighter future, and by doing so she delivers a scathing denouncement of the hypocrisy of her father, her extended family, and her society. It is only because of this video, and another longer, yet so far unreleased one, that she might yet emerge alive and physically unscathed, and that her traveling companions were released from captivity. Also, this time Latifa had surrounded herself with trusted friends and advisors who believed in her, and in the universal right to a free life. We at the FreeLatifa campaign, Detained International, and Stirling Haigh are proud to be among those that Latifa trusted with her quest for freedom.
In 2018, the world-wide media campaign, complaints to London’s Metropolitan Police and the FBI, and a United Nations inquiry supported by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, saw Dubai forced to release Tiina and the crew.
For nine months the UAE were silent regarding the fate of Latifa. It was only after the BBC broadcast Escape From Dubai: The Mystery Of The Missing Princess on December 6, 2018, an hour-long documentary, that the UAE were forced to reveal Latifa’s status. Days later we now know that Latifa’s stepmother paid for her friend, Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to provide a veneer of respectability by visiting Dubai and testifying that Latifa “regrets trying to escape” and was back “in the loving care of her family”. Robinson was roundly condemned for her comments and for interfering in a dire human rights case; she has partially retracted her comments.
It’s now one year since Latifa was abducted. She is still being held in Dubai against her will, by the very family she and her sister spent two decades trying to flee. Her father’s office says she is receiving psychiatric care and that she is “troubled”. In her pre-escape video, Latifa predicted that if she was captured, she would either be killed or drugged and jailed. Ironically, Mary Robinson’s interference, which was met with worldwide condemnation, has confirmed that Latifa’s fears have come true.
The battle to help Latifa flee Dubai continues through legal battles, UN examinations, and police and FBI investigations. Each week, more and more people learn of Latifa’s plight, millions are added to the list every day, and Latifa’s inspiration has encouraged other women across the Middle East to flee, among them Rahaf Mohammed (formerly Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun) and Hind Al Bolooki. Yet, Latifa continues to languish in what she described as “hell”. It is time for the international community and everyone – especially women – across the world to unite to secure her freedom.
In the year since Latifa was kidnapped by her father’s security forces, millions of people around the world have heard her story, in her own words. If you haven’t seen it, take the time to watch the remarkable video she made, in which she lays bare the reality of her life. She may live in a palace, but her account makes it clear that freedom of self-determination can be violated regardless of riches.
If Latifa’s video is one person’s story, the ground-breaking BBC Documentary Escape From Dubai: The Mystery Of The Missing Princess is an independent presentation of the facts surrounding Latifa’s detention and enforced disappearance. You might also want to read the press statement from Human Rights Watch and the press statement of the Guernica Group regarding the UN’s request about the case to the UAE and India.
You can also read more about Latifa, and the events that led to our involvement in more detail on the official Free Latifa campaign website. You can find the timeline of events here, from her daring dash for freedom across the Dubai-Oman border, to the illegal attack on the Nostromo, and what we at the FreeLatifa campaign and Detained International have done to help her since we received her emergency message. You can also read, watch or listen to the majority of the press coverage on Latifa, and watch regular video updates from us at the campaign and Detained International on the progress of the fight to free Latifa.
One day, hopefully in the not too distant future, we will present you with a video of Latifa greeting all those who fought for her freedom. Latifa is the focus of our campaign, but not because she’s Latifa. Latifa stands for every person, especially every woman, who is held against their will when they have done nothing wrong, and sought only to exercise their UN-recognised right of self-determination.
Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum asked for our help and entrusted us with securing her freedom from the gilded cage in which her father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, keeps her as an effective prisoner. We will not let her down. Apart from liking Latifa as a person (the Free Latifa campaign was established and run by her best friend Tiina Jauhiainen with the help of David Haigh), our commitment to fighting for Latifa’s freedom is based on what is at stake here: Latifa stands for every person, especially every woman, who is held against their will when they have done nothing wrong, and sought only to exercise their UN-recognised right of self-determination. We will continue this fight in the courts of law, and before governmental and international organisations such as the United Nations.
The Free Latifa campaign has already been successful in forcing Dubai to reveal that it was state security forces who abducted Latifa in March 2018, and that she is at least alive.
We are now demanding what Latifa has fought for, for years: that she be free to travel to a country of her choice, with her sister Shamsa, free from torture, abuse and duress, and be able to associate with whichever friends, advisors and lawyers she chooses.
Latifa gave us very clear instructions on what to do in the event that her bid for freedom failed. She wanted us to continue to fight for her freedom and to tell her story around the world to inspire others
“If I don’t make it out, I really hope there’s some positive change that will happen from all of this,” she said in the remarkable video she recorded before the daring escape attempt in February 2018.
She wanted to tell the world about her and her sister’s two- decade-long struggle for freedom from torture, abuse and oppression. As well as fighting her own battle, Latifa is also an advocate for equality. She made it clear that, even if she didn’t succeed, she hoped her story would encourage other women in the Middle East to stand up against male guardianship and patriarchy, and ultimately be free.
We are making sure her story will be heard everywhere.