In recent days our nation has been reacting with horror and disgust after 26 year old backpacker Grace Millane went missing in New Zealand. In writing about this today, I am very conscious that this is an ongoing investigation in which events may still move fast. But as things stand today, a body (believed to be Grace) has been found but not yet formally identified and a man has appeared in court charged with murder.
Grace was on a year-long round-the-world trip when she arrived in New Zealand on the 20th of November this year. On Saturday 1 December, she was seen in the city centre of Auckland visiting Sky City, a complex of hotels, restaurants, bars and a casino. Later that evening, she was seen in the company of a male and, by the following day – her birthday, she was missing.
No question that this is a terrible tragedy and my heart goes out to her family especially. But one of the things that has been very noticeable to me is the reaction of the New Zealand government and people. Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, issued a heartfelt apology to Grace’s family and called the murder a source of “national shame”.
“From the Kiwis I have spoken to, there is this overwhelming sense of hurt and shame that this has happened in our country, a place that prides itself on our hospitality.”
Recognising that, ordinarily, the Prime Minister would not get involved in apologising for individual acts of violence, she said she felt compelled to do so because many New Zealanders were taking the case personally. They felt this abduction and, it seems, murder reflected on them somehow.
The reason that this struck such a particular chord with me is because of a different case which involved another young British woman in another country; a situation with which I have a great deal of personal familiarity.
In October 2013, I was asked to visit the home of Alison Patterson, a lady who lived in my parish. When I sat down with Alison, I discovered that she was mother to three children in their teens and twenties, and she had sadly lost her husband, the children’s father, in a tragic accident five years previous. The reason for our meeting was that Alison was in the awful position of needing to arrange a funeral for her daughter, Lauren who had died on the 12th of October that year in Doha, Qatar. She was 24 years old.
Lauren was studying to become a teacher when, in 2012, she took an opportunity to visit Qatar and take a job teaching a Reception class in a school in Doha. Things went well and Lauren was very happy living and working in the country, making friends in the ex-pat community and in the May of 2013, she decided to extend her contract for a second year.
Not long after term had begun in that second academic year, on Saturday the 12th of October, Lauren went for a night out with friends. At the end of the evening, she left the La Cigale nightclub with one of her female friends and two Qatari men. The men dropped the friend home first with Lauren to be taken home second.
It gives me no pleasure to describe to you how Lauren died. However, I believe it is important to rehearse it here so that you understand the severity of what took place. I have, at least, made this text white so that you have to highlight over it to read it. It gives you the choice as to whether you want to read the details of what happened next or not. It’s not pleasant, so I understand if you choose not to highlight the text and you choose to skip over to the following paragraph.
Lauren was not returned home that night. The two men abducted her. One of them raped her and then he stabbed her to death. To try to conceal their crime, the two of them took her body out into the desert where they dug a fire pit and set Lauren’s corpse on fire. When Alison flew out to Qatar to identify Lauren’s body, there was considerable difficulty in doing so because what was left of Lauren weighed only 7.5 kilos. All that was left was part of her head and neck, her upper jaw teeth with her brace still intact, and part of her chest where the knife was still embedded. Her feet were the only part of her body clearly untouched because they had hung over the edge of the fire pit when she was burnt. The red nail polish she loved was still visible on her toes.
On the 21st of November at St Mary’s Church in West Malling; one of the churches I lead and the parish where the Patterson family lived, we conducted Lauren’s funeral. It was a day I will never forget. The church was packed with people; most of them teenagers and adults – Lauren’s friends. In my remarks on the day, I decided to say that Lauren did not die with love surrounding her, but we would make sure that on that day of her funeral she would be buried with love. As we laid her to rest in the churchyard, hundreds of people filed past the open grave, each holding a flower. Each flower was thrown into the grave until, by the time everyone had taken part, you could not see the coffin for the sea of flowers that her friends and family gave to her in one last act of love.
Over the next few years, Alison became a friend and a regular at St Mary’s alongside other members of her family and friends, including her remaining son and daughter. It has been my privilege as her parish priest to accompany them all. I do so still, and I do what I can to walk with the family as they rebuild their lives.
It hasn’t all been misery and tragedy in my pastoral support of the family. Alison found love with her second husband, Kevin, and it was my privilege to marry them at St Mary’s in a day full of joy and celebration. But it was also a day when Lauren was not forgotten. We included a little act of remembrance in the marriage service with Lauren’s photo given pride of place in our Lady Chapel, candles were lit and prayers said. Immediately after the marriage service had concluded, Kevin and Alison took a few moments with me to be at Lauren’s grave and, once again, to pray.
But, unfortunately, as part of that journey since Lauren’s death, Alison and her family have also been involved in what has seemed like a never-ending fight for justice. It is here that the contrast between New Zealand’s reaction for Grace Millane and Qatar’s response to Lauren could not be more different – to New Zealand’s credit and to Qatar’s great shame.
The murderer was quickly identified as Badr Hashim Khamis Abdallah Al Jabr – a Qatari national (pictured left). He was found guilty the following March and sentenced to death. Qatar still has the death penalty. Mohamed Abdallah Hassan Abdul Aziz, Al Jabr’s accomplice, was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for helping to dispose of Lauren’s body and tampering with evidence. One might wonder about why Abdul Aziz only got three years. It is indicative of the wider situation I want to write about today, but that’s not the focus of my attention.
Where I want to focus is that, in the five years since Lauren died, Alison has had to fly to Qatar over thirty times in the hunt for justice. Think for a moment of the financial implications of more than thirty round-trip flights to Qatar.
After the harrowing trial and the initial conviction of Al Jabr, Qatar’s Court of Appeal upheld the conviction a year later. Then, in 2016, Qatar’s highest court threw out that verdict and ordered a new re-trial for Al Jabr.
At this point, when you have the benefit of the British legal system, it’s quite difficult to fathom exactly how Qatar’s judiciary operates. The re-trial was ordered after Al Jabar’s lawyer argued that the Court of Appeal’s decision was “erroneous and not based on a sound legal foundation.” At the re-trial, there was no new evidence introduced. The panel were instead given leave to evaluate what was previously entered into the record to see if any errors were made. The mind boggles as to why such checking and double checking was required, other than in search of some kind of loophole so that Al Jabr could get off.
The retrial took place in 2017 and, thankfully, Al Jabr was found guilty once again. The original sentence, which was to be carried out by firing squad or hanging, was reimposed. The courts dismissed Al Jabr’s defence, admonishing his lawyers in the process who had, at various points over the various trials, claimed that he had acted in self-defence, he was mentally incapable, and even that Lauren had killed herself. Clearly, Al Jabr didn’t have a legal leg to stand on.
And yet, despite this incredible litany of legal activity and re-trial after re-trial after hearing after trial, a further hearing came about this Autumn (2018) because of a technicality in which Al Jabr’s lawyers claimed he had not received the paperwork inviting him to attend the 2017 sentencing hearing.
So Al Jabr had to be sentenced again. It gives me no pleasure to tell you that this apparent ‘re-sentencing’ took place on the 26th of November this year and Lauren’s murderer’s sentence was reduced much to the family’s great surprise, shock and anger. Al Jabr’s sentence was set at ten years. Given time already served since 2013, he will be out in five.
Where New Zealand has, as a nation, effectively covered themselves in sackcloth and ashes and expressed a profound sense of regret and shame that a vibrant, travelling young British woman should ever have come to harm on their shores, Qatar does not. While New Zealand promises justice for a family hurting deeply and grieving for the loss of a young woman who had her whole life ahead of her, Qatar instead continues to prolong the suffering of Alison and her family.
Constant appeals and re-trials only convey to Lauren’s family and watching friends that Qatar’s over-riding priority in this case is not to see justice served, but rather to preserve their national reputation. It seems there is a pervading reluctance to accept that a Qatari could ever act so heinously. Entertaining the repeated legal shenanigans of Al Jabr’s lawyers convey a sense that they would rather expunge the record of such a crime ever having taken place instead of have to admit that a Qatari man actually did this.
One wonders what sort of justice would have been served if the man who violated Lauren had not been Qatari? Amongst the ex-pat community, the Qatari legal system is reputed to often have one rule for nationals and another for those who come from overseas. If Al Jabr had come from the Yemen or Oman, and had done this in Qatar, I very much doubt Al Jabr would still be breathing.
Don’t get me wrong. I am no fan of the death penalty. I am glad to live in a country that long ago ended such cruelty. But I am a fan of justice being served. In anyone’s book, ten years in prison for such a brutal murder is no justice at all. Lauren never got to explore her teaching career. She never got to marry or have children, or grow old in the company of family and friends and with grandchildren to make her smile. A lifetime was stolen by Al Jabr that night. Is ten years the right price for such a theft?
And what prospect is there that this dangerous man, whose misogyny and violent sexual hatred apparently knows no bounds, will be safe if he is released from prison sometime around 2023? What message does it send to other Qatari men with a similar appetite for sexual violence? What message does it send to Al Jabr? Will he have other victims in the future?
For Lauren’s family, for me, for her many family and friends, the fight for justice continues, and there is hope. I think that Qatar’s concern for its own national reputation is something that can be used as we all seek true justice for Lauren.
Let me explain what I mean.
Qatar, if you are reading, do you not see that your reputation as a nation, as a country, is damaged far more by your collective unwillingness to let justice be done and your obfuscation of the clear facts of this case, than any damage done to your reputation by the actions of this one man?
We understand that all Qataris are not wicked, evil rapists and murderers like Al Jabr. We like to trust and believe in your neighbourliness and we see your desire to be seen as a respectable nation on a world stage. With the FIFA World Cup on its way in 2022, we recognise also that you are becoming a player at international level with a passion to be taken seriously as a global force for good.
We can understand that one person can be guilty of unimaginable cruelty, and while such things are lamentable, we also understand that such actions do not need to define a whole country. We do not think of New Zealand as a nation of misogynists and murderers because of what happened to Grace Millane. Their reaction to the death of Grace Millane proves it. It gives us hope that the people of that nation, like the people of Britain, truly want to see justice done for that young woman.
But every time you deny the Patterson family justice, every time you prolong their agony, every time Alison has to get on another plane to Doha… and now when you have given a risible sentence to a man guilty of truly awful crimes, it becomes that much harder for us to see you in the same light as the people of New Zealand.
The choice is yours really. You can either reassure us all, and the international community, that this case was just one man acting from his own evil intent. You can punish him properly for his crime of unimaginable barbarism.
Or you can continue on your current path where, day-by-day, it gets easier and easier to see your nation as a place that one should not visit, let alone allow our sons or daughters to visit. Why would we come when it seems racism and misogyny are alive and well in your legal system, Qataris are protected simply because of their race and place of birth, and violent, predatory men do not face proper justice.
So, your choice. Who are you really? Which nation will you choose to be?