This week the case of Amina Al-Jeffery has hit the headlines. Amina is a 21-year old British citizen with joint Saudi Arabian nationality who is currently in Saudi Arabia, and there is evidence that her father is holding her there against her will. On the basis of that evidence, the courts in this country have made an order that she should be permitted to return here. There are clear echoes of cases under the Hague Convention ordering the safe return of abducted children, but of course Amina is an adult. The whole process has raised interesting issues about how far the courts can go, and what they can realistically achieve, when British citizens are in peril overseas.
It is quite difficult to get to the bottom of this story as unfortunately the judgment in the case, by senior judge Mr Justice Holman, has not been made public. Media reports tell us that Amina was born and brought up in Swansea. At the age of 16 in April 2012 her family took her away to Saudi Arabia after telling her she was going on holiday. She has remained there with her father ever since, and her repeated requests to return to Wales have been denied.
The court heard that Amina had been imprisoned at home, locked in a room with metal bars, that she had been denied food and water and that her head was shaved. She has also been subjected to violence and degrading treatment, and was under pressure to marry. Her barristers had struggled to get instructions from her for the hearing, but she had given details of her ordeal to the staff at the British consul in Jeddah, and one of her sisters had also passed on information.
Amina’s father did not attend the hearing at the High Court, and both sides had their cases presented by lawyers in their absence. It has been reported that the Saudi Arabian government is paying Amina’s father’s legal bills.
Through his barrister, Amina’s father denied all the allegations made. He had earlier written a letter refusing to return Amina to the UK on the basis that she needed to be protected from herself, and could not be trusted not to return to her previous ‘destructive lifestyle’. He alleged that before she was taken to Saudi Arabia, she had been involved in drugs, going to clubs, and spending time with older men. She had also, he said, failed to concentrate sufficiently on school, and she was better able to focus on her education in Jeddah.
The court found that Amina’s human rights had been compomised, and made an order requiring Amina’s father to permit her to return to the UK by 11 September. The problem is that there are no reciprocal arrangements between the UK and Saudi Arabia for the enforcement of court orders – therefore it has no force where it needs to apply. The court, however, made it clear that as the remainder of the Al-Jeffery family still live in Swansea, it considers that it has both a practical and moral hold over Mr Al-Jeffery. If he returns to the country without Amina after the deadline has expired, he could be arrested for contempt of court.
The court’s decision has not been universally welcomed. The 5 weeks allowed for Amina’s father to comply with the court order has given rise to concern that Amina may be at greater risk in the interim. Women’s rights groups have written to the Guardian requesting that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office step in to help Amina, and those who understand so-called ‘honour-based’ violence have been particularly vocal about the need to protect her, pointing out that the period after the victim seeks help is often the most dangerous for her.
Amina’s solicitor has said that she has no reason to expect that her father will not comply with the order against him. We shall see. We agree that the long lead-in to Amina’s compulsory return is problematic, and we very much hope that the increased concerns for her welfare before the deadline turn out to be unfounded. Nevertheless this case is a reassuring reinforcement of the need to respect the human rights of British citizens abroad. It signals that the British court will do its best to protect those who are subject to abuse from family members abroad. Although the practicalities of ensuring the effectiveness of this course of action in Amina’s case may stymie the court’s good intentions, it remains an important statement to the rest of the world. We hope Amina is home safe soon.
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