Khalaf al-Romaithi, a former Emirati official from a prominent family, was detained in Amman on an Emirati warrant. Before his case could be heard, he disappeared
Ben Keith features in Middle East Eye, published 26 June 2023. Click here to view the article on the Middle East Eye Website.
It was supposed to be a quick trip to Jordan. They had lived in Turkey for so long that Khalaf al-Romaithi's son was forgetting his Arabic. A boarding school in Amman might be just the thing. So, early one Sunday morning last month, the 58-year-old businessman boarded a short flight from Ankara to Queen Alia International Airport, Amman, just in time for sunrise. From there, everything about Al-Romaithi's plan would go wrong. An eye scan at the airport revealed that the United Arab Emirates had put out a warrant for his arrest.
His passport was seized and his case was passed on to the Jordanian courts to decide whether to honour the warrant, a process that usually takes several weeks, if not longer. But within days, Romaithi had vanished. His lawyers went to the jail where he was being held and were told their client had been released. But to whom, the jail did not know.
A month and a half later, other unanswered questions linger.
How did Jordan come to have Romaithi’s biometrics? Were Jordanian laws broken in his case? Are Arab states increasingly using a little-known regional security council to apprehend political opponents?
And the biggest mystery of all: where exactly is Khalaf al-Romaithi?
“Khalaf was kidnapped,” his friend, Hamad al-Shamsi, told Middle East Eye. “Literally, he was kidnapped.”
From government official to exile
In 2012, Romaithi was one of 94 Emiratis, including lawyers, professors, and activists, who were named as defendants in the largest mass trial in the UAE’s history for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.
A year earlier, as uprisings calling for change erupted across the region, many of the defendants - though not Romaithi - had signed a petition demanding a series of political reforms from then-UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed. At the height of the Arab uprisings across the region, the crackdown against them was quick and severe, particularly against participating members of Islah.
This Islamist political association, which was legally registered as an NGO in 1974, has been perceived as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood but denies links to the transnational organisation. UAE rulers have since designated the Brotherhood and Islah as terrorist groups. In 2013, Romaithi was among 61 people to be convicted in the trial. He was handed a 15-year prison sentence.
But Romaithi wasn’t in the UAE when the verdict was announced: he had fled to Turkey and was said to be shocked that he was caught up in the case.
'He’s a very, very peaceful man,” said Ahmed al-Nuaimi, another UAE94 member who knows Romaithi. “He doesn’t want to be any trouble.”
Described by friends as quiet and smart, he is from a large and prominent Abu Dhabi family who have traditionally held positions in government and are also known for their commercial work. He served as the assistant undersecretary in Abu Dhabi’s Public Works Department and then worked in the court of Mohammed bin Zayed, then Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, with responsibility for Emirati patients seeking medical treatment abroad. He also served as a member of the board of directors of the government-held Abu Dhabi Holding Company and managed the Abu Dhabi National Investment Authority’s investments in Egypt.
By 2002, when Emirati authorities started to put pressure on Islah, Romaithi had removed himself from the party altogether to avoid any trouble. “He didn’t want to have a headache,” said Al-Shamsi, a friend of Romaithi’s and one of the UAE94 who runs the Emirates Detainees Advocacy Centre.
But the headache came anyway: in 2012, as the crackdown following the petition continued, Emirati authorities called on Romaithi to be a witness against members of the party he had left behind a decade earlier. When he refused, they banned him from traveling and closed his bank accounts.
“He felt something would happen, so he left the UAE from the land border and went to Istanbul, just to live his life,” said Shamsi, who also lives in exile in Turkey.
In Turkey, Romaithi seemed non-political to people who met him, first focusing his time on a construction venture - that was apparently unsuccessful - and then importing and exporting products to and from Africa.
Friends say he wouldn’t speak about the UAE with them - or explain why he had gone quiet. “I’m not sure if it was something he was convinced about or something he feared,” Shamsi said. Romaithi was able to obtain Turkish citizenship through investment and, subsequently, the Turkish passport that he handed over to Jordanian authorities when he landed in Amman on 7 May. But Khalaf’s friends were surprised that he made the trip at all.
After the UAE94 trial, those convicted in absentia told MEE they do not travel to Arab countries for fear that they will end up back in the UAE against their will.
“It would be suicide unless you are high-profile and friends of the nation you are going to,”
said Ben Keith, a barrister with the UK-based Five St Andrew’s Hill who specialises in cross-border cases, including several involving the UAE.
The UAE, he said, has a history of committing what lawyers call "extraterritorial rendition" - or kidnapping - to pick up individuals that the country or its allies want.
In 2015, for example, Abdulrahman Khalifa bin Subaih al-Suwaidi, who was convicted in the UAE94 trial, was sent to the UAE from Indonesia where he was in applying for political asylum. A local Indonesian court initially blocked an extradition request from the UAE for Al-Suwaidi and, after two months behind bars, he was cleared for release. But before Al-Suwaidi could be released, sources have previously told MEE that a joint group of Indonesian and Emirati forces kidnapped and put him on a private plane to the UAE.
Upon his return, Al-Suwaidi was reportedly tortured and forcibly disappeared before being sentenced to 15 years in prison. In July 2017, a month after the start of the Qatar blockade and while Al-Suwaidi was still carrying out his sentence, he appeared on a state-run television station saying that Qatar had offered passports to, and funded, Islah’s leadership. Activists say they believe he was coerced.
Al-Suwaidi was pardoned in 2019 but is understood to remain in the UAE and is subject to a travel ban. Perhaps the best-known example is that of Princess Latifa, daughter of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, who attempted to escape by boat in March 2018. Her attempt ended with Indian special forces raiding the yacht at sea and bringing her and her accompanying Finnish friend back to the UAE.
Sheikh Mohammed reportedly described what happened as a rescue mission.
Last year, a UAE-based Royal Jet, a private airline chaired by a member of Abu Dhabi's ruling family, reportedly provided a plane for the unlawful extradition of Ahmed Jaafar Mohamed Ali, a Bahraini dissident, from Serbia. But another way Emiratis in exile could find themselves vulnerable to being returned to the UAE is through warrants circulated by the Arab Interior Ministers Council (AIMC), established by the Arab League in 1982 and sometimes referred to as the "Arab Interpol".
The council says it “aims to develop and strengthen cooperation and coordinate efforts between Arab countries in the field of internal security and combating crime”. Essentially, it’s a system for quick information sharing and speedy extraditions, similar to Interpol, the Lyon-based supranational police force, or other regional security networks worldwide.
But rights groups say, unlike Interpol, warrants circulating through the AIMC are not a matter of public record and those subject to them are unable to take steps to have those warrants removed. Alexis Thiry, a legal advisor for the Geneva-based MENA Rights Group, said that lack of transparency could pose grave consequences for those wanted by Arab states for political reasons.
"We fear that Arab states might increasingly turn to AIMC to circulate arrest warrants and seek the extradition of political opponents living or traveling in another state member of the Arab League,” he told MEE.
But why issue warrants if you are willing to seize opponents?
“It’s cheaper than spying,” said Keith. “You can be in exile for 10 years. They just put a notice on you and then they can find you.”
Over the past seven months, at least three warrants are believed to have circulated through the council in attempts to extradite people for political reasons.
Last November, Sherif Osman, an Egyptian-American who once served in the Egyptian army before moving to the US, was detained while visiting his sister in Dubai. In the month leading up to his visit, he had been calling on social media for protests during the Cop27 climate conference in Egypt. A month after Osman was picked up, Emirati officials told reporters that Egypt had circulated a warrant for his arrest through the AIMC.
Following intervention from US officials, Osman was freed on 29 December. In January, Hassan al-Rabea, a Saudi national, was arrested at Marrakesh Airport in Morocco on an AIMC warrant issued by Saudi Arabia.
According to the warrant, Saudi authorities sought to try him for leaving the kingdom “irregularly” with the help of “terrorists”, but his family said he was being punished for anti-government protests in Qatif that his relatives - not Hassan himself - had been involved in years earlier. After court hearings over several weeks, Al-Rabea was extradited to the kingdom in February. He is currently held in Dammam Prison in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.
The third AIMC warrant highlighted by rights groups was for Romaithi. AIMC did not respond to a request for comment.
'He was afraid'
So, Romaithi’s decision to travel to Jordan was a risk, one some urged him not to take and one that others were surprised to learn about afterward.
In the past decade, he is understood to have travelled to Tunisia without issue and perhaps he thought this fact, plus his Turkish passport, meant he was safe. Asim al-Omari, one of Romaithi’s two lawyers in Jordan, described to MEE the course of events after the businessman touched down in Amman.
After handing over his passport, his eyes were scanned and, immediately, the police asked if he had a second nationality and said there was a warrant for his arrest. Romaithi’s passport was confiscated and he was arrested, but immediately bailed himself out for 3,000 Jordanian dinars ($4,224) and headed to a hotel.
The following afternoon, when Romaithi met with his lawyers, he told them the hotel staff had figured out who he was and he was scared.
“He was afraid because there is a precedent from the United Arab Emirates. They don’t hesitate to hijack people from other countries,” Omari said.
Romaithi left his lawyers, planning to have dinner with a friend and spend the evening at that friend’s house to avoid the hotel. But barely a few steps from the office, he was arrested by four plainclothes officers. “They took me,” Romaithi texted his lawyers.
He was driven to Marka Prison, a facility about 3km north of central Amman, adjacent to Amman Civil Airport. Amnesty has previously documented the airport as one of several across the Middle East and Europe used by the CIA for rendition flights after 9/11.
According to Omari, the AIMC had called the judge involved in Romaithi’s case to say that he was a flight risk and shouldn’t have been able to bail himself out.The following day, Romaithi appeared in court and learned that a copy of the UAE’s file on his extradition had already been presented to the judge. “Usually, it takes weeks,” said Omari.
The judge now needed time to go through the file and scheduled another hearing for 16 May. Meanwhile, Romaithi was returned to prison. In London and Istanbul, a network of UAE94 members in exile was working to try to help Romaithi, calling officials in different countries and organisations to sound the alarm. They believed that they had at least a couple of weeks to persuade Jordan to let their friend go, Shamsi said.
But that 9 May hearing was the last time that his lawyers would see their client.
Taken from prison
A document filed on Jordan’s online court portal shows that on 10 May, the judge in the case had ordered Romaithi’s release.
Sure enough, when Omari’s associate went to Marka Prison that day, Romaithi was gone. He said the prison staff claimed they had received the judge’s order. “So he was released,” Omari said. “Some people took him out of the prison. We don’t know who they are.”
When Romaithi’s lawyers asked the judge what happened, Omari said he was embarrassed and told them that the AIMC had asked him to release him. The judge also told the lawyers that the governor of Amman had signed off on Romaithi’s extradition.
The governor, Omari said, denied this to the lawyers when they approached him and also said he needed a power of attorney to talk to them. The governor previously declined to comment when MEE asked if he was responsible for Romaithi’s extradition.
For a week, neither Turkey, Jordan, nor the UAE said anything publicly about Romaithi. But privately, a Turkish official told interested parties that Romaithi had been flown on a private plane to Abu Dhabi on 12 May.
Then on 17 May, the Emirates state-run news agency WAM said that Romaithi had been “received” in the UAE, describing him as a “terrorist” convicted on charges of creating a secret organisation belonging to the “terrorist” Muslim Brotherhood group and reporting that he will be retried again.
Romaithi’s lawyers, friends, and family presume he is in the UAE, but until now, none of the countries involved have confirmed anything publicly. They fear that he is at risk of ill-treatment and torture in the UAE.
Consequently, his lawyers have sent letters to UN working groups, calling for an investigation into his whereabouts. But this could take months.
“He has been effectively disappeared,” Haydee Dijkstal, Romaithi’s UK-based lawyer. “Urgent steps must be taken to hold Jordan and the UAE to account for these extrajudicial actions contrary to international law, and to demand that his rights are protected.”
Jordanian media has been silent on Romaithi. But his case has raised questions among Jordanian MPs. One MP, Adnan Mashuqa, sent a letter to the prime minister’s office demanding answers about Romaithi’s disappearance and questioning whether Jordan’s constitution was violated. Answers were due this month. But he has yet to hear.
While Romaithi’s family - who declined to comment for this story - and friends have been left to wonder where he is, Omari, his lawyer, says he’s been left to question whether Jordan is a country with rule of law anymore.
“I don’t blame the authorities in the Emirates. It’s a regime. We know what it is. But my anger is what’s happening in our system,” Omari said.
“It’s a mafia system now. This is not a legal system.”
Ben Keith is a leading barrister specialising in cross-border and international cases. He deals with all aspects of Extradition, Human Rights, Mutual Legal Assistance, Interpol, Financial crime and International Law including sanctions. He represents governments, political and military leaders, High Net Worth individuals, human rights defenders and business leaders in the most sensitive cases.
He has extensive experience of appellate proceedings before the Administrative and Divisional Courts, Civil and Criminal Divisions of the Court of Appeal as well as applications and appeals to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and United Nations. Ben is recognised in Chambers and Partners and The Legal 500.