Women seek damages for arrest by Customs: High Court told that mother and daughter faced hostility, rudeness and humiliation

Click to follow
CUSTOMS officers subjected a mother and daughter to an hour-long ordeal of hostility, rudeness and public humiliation, a High Court jury was told yesterday.

At the time, Sabiha Foster was married to Andrew Knight, the head of News International, Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper publishing company. She is now the wife of Sir Norman Foster, one of the country's leading architects.

Lady Foster, a linguist born in Pakistan, and her daughter, India, had been unjustly arrested for allegedly obstructing a search of their hand luggage, Mr John Mathew QC, their counsel said. Lady Foster was overcome with fright at the prospect of being put through the 'ultimate humiliation' of a body search, so she eventually announced who her husband was. She was soon told she was free to go.

Lady Foster, of Battersea, south- west London, and her daughter, now Mrs India Langmead, are suing the Customs and Excise Department for damages for false imprisonment and 'slander by conduct' - being marched publicly through the airport's concourses in a manner which, said Mr Mathew, would have meant to everybody that they were being arrested for a serious offence.

The Customs and Excise Department denies the allegations. At the time of the incident - November 1990 - it was engaged in security checks for documents relating to the breaking of UN sanctions against Iraq in the run-up to the Gulf war. Mr Mathew said their defence was that the 'boot was on the other foot' - the officers had behaved impeccably and the women had been aggressive, sarcastic, loud and unco-operative.

Mr Mathew said that the two women were suing not just for damages but to establish the principle that 'regardless of age, sex, creed or colour, in this country we are all entitled to be treated with courtesy and respect by persons who have the power of authority behind them'.

They were returning from a brief visit to Brussels when a Timothy Entwhistle, a customs officer, looked at Lady Foster's Belgian passport and saw it contained a Jordanian visa. 'He immediately became hostile, rude and sarcastic,' Mr Mathew said. Mr Entwhistle had become aggravated when she said she could not remember when she had last visited Jordan. He was then offensive when she had suggested he could check the date by looking at her passport stamps.

Later he had asked in an insulting way whether she spoke English. Mr Mathew said: 'She not only speaks perfect English but six other languages.'

The women were arrested for obstruction after Lady Foster had asked the officer to hurry up with his search or let her help in undoing two gift- wrapped parcels which contained babywear. Mr Entwhistle went off and returned with other officers who then marched the two women to separate interview rooms. 'Walking through the public concourse surrounded by customs officers was very embarrassing and humiliating,' Mr Mathew said. After the arrest, she claimed she was taken roughly by the arm until her daughter screamed: 'Don't touch my mother.'

The case continues today.

(Photograph omitted)