Three years after Christian Elombo took part in a doomed bid to help the daughter of Dubai's ruler flee the UAE, the Frenchman still thinks he did the right thing despite spending months in jail in the Gulf and Europe as a consequence.
In March 2018, Princess Latifa, the daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, attempted to flee the UAE on a boat that was intercepted by commandos off the coast of India.
Her fate remains a mystery and a cause of international concern, with the UN urging the United Arab Emirates to provide proof she is alive, after the BBC broadcast a video where Latifa said she was being held captive.
One of those who helped Latifa in her failed bid to flee her home country was Elombo, 43, a martial arts coach who was a friend and is now based in London.
“I was arrested like a big criminal, accused of kidnapping just because I helped Latifa,” he told AFP in an interview that broke three years of silence over his involvement.
He described his involvement in the bid as “unreal” but “right”.
While the endeavour reads like the plot of a film, the consequences were all too real for Elombo, who found himself jailed in Oman and then — more unexpectedly — in Luxembourg.
Latifa slipped out of the UAE on February 24, 2018, along with Tiina Jauhiainen, her Finnish capoeira coach, under a plan hatched by Franco-American, Herve Jaubert.
It was in Oman that they joined up with Elombo, a friend of Jauhiainen who was living in the sultanate. He helped them by driving them in a small boat to a larger one chartered by Jaubert moored offshore.
It was this boat that was boarded in early March by a commando team in international waters off Goa and its occupants brought back to the UAE.
Elombo had for his part stayed ashore in Oman on the advice of Jaubert, who he lambasts for telling the fellow participants they risked nothing and not to try and flee themselves.
But two days after the boarding, he found that “about 30 people were waiting for me at my house, five or six police cars, weapons in hand.”
“I said to myself 'one of them may be just waiting for a sudden movement on my part to shoot'. I stayed calm.”
'Knew what she wanted'
Imprisoned in Oman and put in solitary confinement, he was questioned relentlessly about his participation in a “kidnapping”.
“How can you kidnap someone who wants to leave?” he asked.
“I chose to help Latifa because it was right. She knew what she wanted. She didn't choose to be his (Sheikh Mohammad's) daughter.”
He claims to have undergone real “psychological torture”, woken up anytime in the night and warned he might never leave Omani jails.
And “without ever a single consular visit”, he alleged.
Meanwhile, his sister Jackye, a business lawyer in Luxembourg, was busy behind the scenes. To survive, “I watched movies in my head, set goals, worked out.”
After two months, he was finally deported, left for Luxembourg but was imprisoned there the morning after his arrival on the grounds of a red notice issued by the UAE to Interpol.
He was released more than a month later after the UAE failed so send the file supposed to support their red notice within the deadline.
Three years on he remains bitter — towards French diplomats who he claims never contacted him and also the Luxembourg authorities who he says held him in detention when they had no need to.
He says it took a long time for him to get on with his “so messed up” life and regain confidence.
“Today, all this sometimes seems unreal to me. Talking about it, I see a whole bunch of scenes again.”
'She is not free'
And while he can begin to rebuild his life after the ill-fated episode, there remains alarm and uncertainty over what has become of Latifa.
UN experts said on Tuesday the UAE must provide “concrete information” about her situation “without delay”, saying it had so far failed to do so and her “continued incommunicado detention can have harmful physical and psychological consequences”.
In the video broadcast by the BBC filmed a year after Latifa was captured and returned to Dubai, she says she was held for about three months in prison in Dubai, until May 2018, before being moved to a villa.
In a statement in February, Dubai's royal family insisted that Latifa was being “cared for at home” and would return to public life when the time was right.
“I would do the same thing for anyone who was close like Latifa,” Elombo said. “But unfortunately, she is not free.“