Police were right to suspect Fayed of theft, rules judge

Police were right to suspect Mohamed Al Fayed as a thief and arrest him for allegedly breaking into a Harrods safety deposit box rented by his bitter rival Tiny Rowland, a High Court judge ruled yesterday.

The humiliating judgment against the Harrods boss came as he lost the case he had brought against Scotland Yard for false imprisonment.

There was further embarrassment for Mr Fayed during the hearing when it emerged that a fortune in antique jewellery from another box belonging to an elderly woman, a relative of the late Sir James Goldsmith, had disappeared after Mrs Fayed had "shown interest in them".

Mr Rowland, the loser in a bitter battle with Mr Fayed for control of Harrods, alleged in a 1997 lawsuit that Mr Fayed persuaded employees to break into his safe-deposit box.

Mr Fayed and his employees were arrested – and subsequently released – in March 1998 and in July of the same year an investigation by the Metropolitan Police's Organized Crime Group ended without any charges.

Dismissing the action brought by Mr Fayed and four of his current and past employees, Mr Justice Cresswell said: "I find that a reasonable man would have been of the opinion that... there was reasonable ground for suspecting Mr Fayed to be guilty of theft and criminal damage jointly with others."

Neither Mr Fayed nor the four others – John Macnamara, Paul Handley-Greaves, Colin Dalman and John Allen – had appeared at the High Court to give evidence.

Detective Chief Superintendent Jeff Rees, the officer who led the investigation against Mr Fayed, was described by Mr Justice Cresswell as "an extremely impressive police officer and an extremely impressive witness". Mr Rees retired from the Met in September 2000 after 35 years and is now chief investigator at the International Cricket Council's anti-corruption unit.

Mr Rees' solicitor, Graham Small, said: "The greatest travesty is that the Metropolitan Police were taken from fighting crime to go into court to defend themselves". Mr Fayed said after the case that he was "appalled" by the judgment. "I have instructed my lawyers to launch an immediate appeal because the ruling strikes at the heart of civil liberties," he said. Mr Fayed said he had not brought the action because he was vindictive towards the police, insisting: "I merely want justice."

The genesis of Mr Fayed's action lay in the secret opening of a safety deposit box belonging to the late Lonrho boss Mr Rowland – a former business ally-turned-rival – at Harrods on the alleged orders of Mr Fayed and in his presence on three different occasions in December 1995.

According to a list given to the police by Mr Rowland, the contents of the box included documents as well as emeralds, rubies, Tibetan coins and a rare Tibetan stamp, five guinea English gold coins and a gold cigarette box.

After the police investigation began the box was opened by Mr Rowland on 5 June, 1997 under police supervision, the court heard. The Lonrho boss noticed that envelopes had been torn and the contents were in some state of disarray.

A Scotland Yard officer reported: "Mr Rowland appeared very shocked, his hands began to shake and it was obvious the incident had upset him."

Two years ago Mr Fayed agreed a £ 1.4m settlement with Mr Rowland's widow, Josephine, in which he admitted her late husband's box was opened. But he denied being the instigator.

The court also heard that a safety box belonging to Ms Helga Schwarzschild, was opened for non-payment of rents, and jewellery worth £100,000 went missing after being taken to Mr Fayed's office, and after his wife, Heini, had shown interest. No settlement has been reached yet.

Fayed's feuds

Jonathan Aitken, right, a former Tory minister, was jailed for perjury after lying about who paid for a stay at the Paris Ritz in 1993. Mohamed Al Fayed, owner of the Paris Ritz, saw him in the hotel and told the editor of a national newspaper.

Neil Hamilton lost a libel action against Mr Fayed in 1999. The Harrods owner had accused the former Tory minister of taking cash for tabling parliamentary questions. At the trial, Mr Fayed accused Prince Philip of "masterminding" a conspiracy to kill Diana, Princess of Wales and his son Dodi.

Tiny Rowland, right, the former boss of the Lonrho conglomerate, lost a long battle with Mr Fayed for ownership of Harrods. He tried to persuade the Government to investigate the sale in the Eighties.

Henry Porter, Vanity Fair's London editor, was in a libel dispute over a magazine article in 1995 accusing Mr Fayed, among other things, of harassing female staff. It was settled out of court.