She’s a feminist icon in Irish political life for generations of young women, and she travelled the world advocating for human rights in her role as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights following her historic two-term presidency.
So how and why did Mary Robinson end up “horribly tricked” into vouching for the safety of a Dubai princess held hostage by her father, against any principles of women’s rights, or indeed basic human rights?
The dramatic tale featured on a recent episode of BBC’s Panorama,and included the first-ever airing of video messages shot on a smuggled smartphone by the princess inside her “jail villa".
The family of Princess Latifa Al Maktoum said that she is "being cared for at home" and "will return to public life at the appropriate time" after the self-filmed video messages prompted widespread concern for her safety.
The video footage was described as "very distressing" but her family insist she is being cared for at home, supported by her family and medical professionals.
In the messages, there is little doubt that Princess Latifa, 35, is being held against her will by her father.
Sheikha Latifa is one of 30 children born to six wives of Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is also prime minister and vice president of the United Arab Emirates.
Sheikha Latifa hasn’t been seen in public since a dramatic escape attempt in March 2018, when her Finnish personal trainer and a former French soldier joined forces to smuggle the princess out of her gilded cage and aboard a boat, which was later boarded by armed Emirati commandos in Indian waters.
Sheikha Latifa and her personal trainer, Tiina Jauhiainen, were captured at gunpoint, sedated and returned to Dubai, with Ms Jauhiainen released after a fortnight.
Prior to her escape attempt, Sheikha Latifa recorded a 40-minute video outlining a restrictive life without freedom of choice to study, travel, drive a car, as well as tales of beatings, intimidation, and the incarceration of at least two more of her siblings.
Released on YouTube when she was detained, the video has over 4.8m views.
Ms Jauhiainen and a team of lawyers began the #FreeLatifa campaign in the months after she was returned to her father’s control.
In the video, Sheikha Latifa outlined her prior escape attempt at 16 in 2002, and said she was tortured, beaten and imprisoned after she was stopped at the UAE border and returned to her father.
She was released from this first round of imprisonment in 2005.
“All my father cares about is his reputation,” she says in the video.
“He’s pure evil, there’s nothing good in him. He is responsible for so many people’s deaths and ruining so many people’s lives.”
Latifa is not the only one of her siblings for whom there are serious concerns. Her eldest full sister, Sheikha Shamsa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, has not been seen in public for 20 years, ever since she fled while holidaying in the UK at the age of 19.
Having lived with friends in an apartment for two months, Shamsa was abducted on the streets of Cambridge, sedated, brought to a private jet, and returned to Dubai, where Latifa claims she has been imprisoned ever since, and has made several attempts on her own life.
The illegal abduction of an adult in another jurisdiction may seem audacious on behalf of Dubai’s ruler, but billionaire Sheikh Mohammed is on friendly terms with the British royal family and is a powerful figure in horse-racing, owning Godolphin breeding operation and horseracing team, which owns numerous stud farms in the UK and Ireland.
Questions have been raised over whether the UK’s Home Office quelled a police investigation into Sheikha Shamsa’s 2000 kidnapping.
Against this background, human rights organisations responded with shock when photos of Sheikha Latifa sitting alongside former President Mary Robinson were released, alongside a statement that Latifa was in the “loving care” of her family, by UAE’s Foreign Ministry in late 2018, nine months after Latifa’s abduction.
Global women’s rights champion Mrs Robinson had travelled to Dubai to meet Sheikha Latifa at the request of her stepmother, Haya bint Mohammed, with whom Mrs Robinson says she remains on friendly terms.
However, in the Panorama documentary aired this week, Mrs Robinson says she was “tricked” by the publishing of the photographs, even though she paradoxically claimed they were taken to establish “proof of life,” during her interview with the BBC.
Mrs Robinson said she was told Sheikha Latifa suffered from bipolar disorder, and that her comments at the time, that the princess was clearly a “troubled young woman,” in the care of her family, were based on this belief.
In the newly-released video clips recorded by Sheikha Latifa, she claims that she was not told who Mrs Robinson was, had no idea she was a former UN human rights commissioner, and that their conversation during the lunch was limited to sports, veganism, and Mrs Robinson’s new book.
“I’m not very familiar with people who have bipolar disorder, and I didn’t want to increase the trauma,” Mrs Robinson said when asked why she hadn’t enquired after the princess’ wellbeing.
It is unclear as to whether she made any inquiries as to Sheikha Shamsa’s whereabouts.
All in all, Mrs Robinson’s statements on the affair have been contradictory: She claimed she issued “a report” of her visit with Sheikha Latifa to her UN successor, Michelle Bachelet, but later said this was a letter, and that it was not going to be made publicly available.
If, as she has most recently stated, she was tricked into the visit, why did she initially defend the visit and wait two years before revealing that she had been duped?
Mrs Robinson, speaking through her PA, declined to comment for this article, apart from to say that the situation was a “very complex and difficult one” and that she remains “extremely concerned about Princess Latifa.”
The UAE’s Ambassador to Ireland also declined to comment for this article.
Amidst continued condemnation from human rights groups including Amnesty International, who said the treatment of the princess “amounts to torture,” the UN human rights commission has now asked the United Arab Emirates for proof that Sheikha Latifa is alive, amidst continued calls for a full investigation by the UN.
- Additional reporting by AP