No matter how important Christian Michel might be to eradicate bribery, win elections or nail the Gandhis, it would be despicable if his extradition was part of a deal linked with the capture of Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, daughter of the ruler of Dubai, who seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth. If she is dead, it would confirm — coming hard on the heels of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder — that West Asia is indeed an area of darkness, and that there isn’t much light in India either.
The American CIA and others attribute Khashoggi’s killing to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who was photographed with Narendra Modi at the recent G20 summit in Argentina. An arrogantly statuesque Royal Highness doesn’t even look at the Prime Minister ingratiatingly clutching one of his hands with both his. It isn’t a picture to fill Indians with pride. Nor this newspaper’s April 27 report that Ajit Doval, the national security adviser, masterminded the operation to seize and repatriate the princess as “she was seeking to escape torture inflicted by her father…” The CBI also boasted that the extradition of the alleged middleman in the AgustaWestland deal took place “under” Doval’s “guidance”.
Not having been widely reported in this country, Latifa’s story bears recapitulating. For whatever reason, the 33-year-old princess, who lived in Dubai with a brother and a sister, in a no doubt luxurious compound with its own sports facilities, including stables, was estranged from her father (whom she rarely saw) and unhappy in her country. According to an anonymous friend, she couldn’t travel abroad or even leave her compound without a large and watchful retinue. Complaining in a video that her family was holding her against her will and that she faced torture, Latifa warned she would soon try to escape. A BBC documentary, Escape from Dubai, describes her doomed attempt to do so through interviews with the French and Finnish companions who accompanied her and the Filipino crew of the yacht, Nostromo, flying the American flag. It was intercepted 50 km from Goa where the princess had planned to land and fly to the US to apply for asylum.
As her Finnish friend, Tiina Jauhiainen, told the Helsinki Times, “On Sunday, 4th March 2018, as night fell we were off the coast of Goa, India, when we were attacked by Indian secret service and military, including the Indian Coast Guard. Around 15 men came on board fully masked, in armoured black clothing, with machine guns and laser sights. They used what I believe was tear gas. It was the most terrifying experience of my life. The Indian men had their laser sights on me and Latifa and they were telling me they would shoot me and kill me. I was thrown against the floor, stood on and found myself in a pool of blood. (Apparently, the Frenchman, Hervé Jaubert, had been severely beaten and was bleeding.) At this point, I thought they had killed Hervé and I thought I was next. They told me again and again they would kill me and held me on the edge of the boat, threatening to push me into the sea. We were cuffed and forced to lie down.”
Jaubert claims at least five warships, replete with cannons and missiles, two military planes, and a helicopter took part in the raid. According to the Business Standard, “The unprecedented March 4 operation involved three Coast Guard ships, including the state-of-the-art offshore patrol vessels Samarth and Shoor, helicopters and a maritime surveillance aircraft.” Quite a sledgehammer to crack a relatively small nut.
I have no wish to step into the quagmire of legal arguments about the princess and United Arab Emirates or Islamic law, or whether she was entitled to asylum. Nor am I interested in the high diplomacy of Modi’s two visits to the UAE since 2015, the last as recently as February, and the quid pro quo of cooperation in oil, anti-terrorism, trade and migration. Important as they are, such considerations cannot compare with the human condition. The Helsinki Times reported that as she was dragged off the yacht, the princess cried, “I won’t go back to the UAE, just kill me now!” She hasn’t been heard of since then. Perhaps she is dead. If so, Modi’s government has blood on its hands. Even if she is alive, sending her back was a cruel thing to do. Lives are not for barter.