British wife faces child kidnap charge in Dubai

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A British woman detained in the United Arab Emirates after trying to smuggle her son away from his billionaire father will learn today whether she is to face charges of attempted kidnapping in Dubai.

Sarra Fotheringham, 34, could face a lengthy jail term after she was caught in Arab dress trying to board a ship bound for Iraq with Tariq, the 10-year-old son of the financier Rashid al-Habtoor, 35, one of the wealthiest men in the world.

Yesterday, she spoke from her jail cell of the conditions in which she was being held, claiming she was being forced to sign statements written in Arabic, which she does not speak. "From what I've heard it seems the law over here is that you are guilty until proven innocent," she told London's Evening Standard newspaper.

"They haven't actually charged [me] yet and from what I hear the public prosecutor is the enemy. I really don't know what is going to happen as they keep us in the dark. I only have a dirty mattress, there's no air conditioning, there's no doors on the toilets and I feel very down.

"Everything is conducted in Arabic and I don't speak Arabic. They don't even offer a translator and they ask me to sign statements in Arabic, which is utterly pointless as I don't understand what's written. It really is pretty appalling."

Mrs Fotheringham's arrest marks the latest chapter in a bitter custody battle over Tariq, which has seen her employ increasingly desperate measures. She gave birth to the boy after an affair in the Gulf state, which ended, she said, because she became pregnant and Mr al-Habtoor wanted nothing more to do with her.

Mr al-Habtoor's family has interests ranging from finance and oil to construction. It also owns hotels and an executive jet transport business, together with a string of large homes around the world.

Hehas played polo with Prince Charles and counts Prince Michael of Kent and Omar Sharif as friends.

Mr al-Habtoor claims he knew nothing of Tariq's existence until 1998. In September 1999, after Mr al-Habtoor had met Tariq in England a number of times, Sarra and her husband, Neil, travelled to Dubai to consider living there but they decided to return to Britain after three months. At that time Mr al-Habtoor refused to allow Tariq to return to Britain, so they began legal proceedings to win custody. The High Court Family Division found the boy was being unlawfully detained in Dubai and ordered his immediate return.

But, at a later appeal, Lord Justice Thorpe said that the Dubai court did have jurisdiction over the case, even though Mr al-Habtoor had gained custody only by "making a number of serious mis-statements of fact", including a claim that he had been married to Mrs Fotheringham.

Yesterday, at the family home in Camberley, Surrey, Mr Fotheringham said his wife had been arrested at Port Rashid with another woman, a fluent Arabic speaker, after "outwitting" Tariq's bodyguards at his school.

The women had intended to drive to Qatar before returning to Britain, but the journey, through Saudi Arabia, was not possible because women are not allowed to drive there. Instead they attempted to board a ship that would have taken them to Basra in Iraq.

Mrs Fotheringham, a former air stewardess, said she has been allowed to see Tariq only three times in the past two years and each time he had said: "I don't like it here, mummy. You have to get me out of here." She said she not only planned to fight any kidnapping charges but also to have Mr al-Habtoor charged for the same offence.

British consular officials visited Mrs Fotheringham at a Dubai police station yesterday and said she had made no complaints about the manner of her detention. A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: "We expect a court to decide [today] whether or not she will face charges. If she does, we will ensure she has proper legal representation."

Neil Fotheringham said the couple's three other children were anxious about their mother, but the battle for custody of Tariq would continue. "The al-Habtoor family want to treat this as a minor offence of child abduction as they don't want the details to come out in court," he said.

"They want to force Sarra to leave as quickly as possible, but Sarra just wants her son back.

"She was desperate to see Tariq after his father and his family cut off all communication with him.

"I can't even contemplate what they will do to her. I will deal with it when it comes. Sarra has three more children desperate to see her. She's not a criminal, she's a mother who just wants to see her son and they stopped her."