Diplomatic Immunity: Be Careful What You P(r)ay

Before that most enlightening report in The Telegraph several weeks ago, few Saint Lucians had heard of Walid Juffali. External Affairs personnel who had heard of him—“but vaguely”—were altogether in the dark about his relationship with the people of this nation. (Actually, they confused Walid with his daughter, our honorary consul in Saudi Arabia!) Motivated by what I’d read in the UK paper, in particular that the multi-billionaire Arab was Saint Lucia’s Permanent Representative to the International Maritime Organization, I contacted the Fisheries Department perchance to hook a peek under the veil that rendered secret Walid Juffali’s reported links with our government.

A somewhat embarrassed official confessed he knew nothing about the Saudi’s reported appointment. Although IMO decisions impact Saint Lucia shipping, he could think of no good reason why we needed a regular presence on the organization’s board. He kindly suggested I contact the government’s advisor on matters marine: Mr. Cuthbert Didier.

(Left) Prime Minister Kenny Anthony: He thanked a UK court this week for “legitimizing” Walid Juffali’s appointment as Saint Lucia’s Permanent Representative to the IMO. But what the court ruled on was the irrelevance of the Saudi’s presumed diplomatic immunity to his ex-wife’s claim on his property portfolio! (Right) External Affairs Minister Alva Baptiste: Quite uncharacteristically, he has not only disappeared from local TV screens but has practically gone silent and incommunicado. Since the Juffali affair, not a word, not a word, not a word. Has the PM’s cat got the minister’s tongue?

(Left) Prime Minister Kenny Anthony: He thanked a UK court this week for “legitimizing” Walid Juffali’s appointment as Saint Lucia’s Permanent Representative to the IMO. But what the court ruled on was the irrelevance of the Saudi’s presumed diplomatic immunity to his ex-wife’s claim on his property portfolio! (Right) External Affairs Minister Alva Baptiste: Quite uncharacteristically, he has not only disappeared from local TV screens but has practically gone silent and incommunicado. Since the Juffali affair, not a word, not a word, not a word. Has the PM’s cat got the minister’s tongue?

Several times I failed to reach him. But then I caught Didier telling Newsspin’s Timothy Poleon that notwithstanding his job he was as surprised as the rest of the nation by The Telegraph’s revelations. On the advice of still another public servant I called SLASPA, only to be informed that on all matters IMO the department relied on the Ministry of External Affairs—which I took to mean the SLASPA official was in no position to speak with authority on Walid Juffali.

At the heart of the cited online publication was that one of his former wives, an American and a former model who was seeking a mighty chunk of Juffali’s huge fortune, had found herself ambushed at the pass, so to speak. To her great surprise, her former husband, now remarried a third time, had somehow landed a diplomatic post that according to his lawyers rendered him immune to her efforts at dragging him before a divorce court. In short, that their client was beyond the reach of UK justice.

Saint Lucia’s prime minister addressed the Juffali story for the first time three days after it appeared in The Telegraph online. Standing tall on the steps of the Castries market and costumed for war, he aimed at the red hearts arrayed before him. By all he said on the recalled evening, Juffali had more than a year earlier visited Saint Lucia aboard his luxury yacht and at first sight of Helen’s legendary twin peaks had fallen in love. So completely that he immediately offered to donate to her caretakers an establishment dedicated to the eradication of the disease that for countless years had plagued her offspring: diabetes.

Asked the prime minister, in tones reminiscent of final good-byes: “What’s wrong with that? What does Allen Chastanet have against this country that he would attack a man who has offered to help save thousands of Saint Lucia lives; thousands who now suffer from diabetes?” As for the expressed wish from some quarters that he should waive the immunity Juffali enjoyed only by virtue of his being our man at the IMO, the prime minister said to comply would set “a dangerous precedent” that would adversely affect diplomats everywhere. Besides, “rigorous due diligence by both local and UK authorities” had proved the Saudi squeaky clean. (The particular assertion was later denied by the UK government.) His final public word on Juffali was that his administration considered the Saudi and his ex-wife’s marital situation a personal matter to be settled amicably by the principals or by a court of law.

On January 18, 2016 the prime minister’s office announced it had informed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that it intended to uphold “the principle of diplomatic immunity by allowing its Permanent Representative to the International Maritime Organization to invoke his diplomatic immunity in the civil case brought by his ex-wife.” Moreover, that “based on legal advice and precedence established in international diplomatic practice the principle of diplomatic immunity must be safeguarded and should only be lifted in exceptional cases . . . This case does not warrant the lifting of the immunity of Dr. Juffali . . . The parties should be allowed to settle their matrimonial dispute through negotiations and failing that the courts should decide if immunity should be waived in this matter.”

Last month a UK high court presided over by Justice Hayden ruled that Juffali’s ex-wife Christina Estrada could lay claim to a share of his property portfolio in Britain. Also that Juffali had sought to defeat Estrada’s action by asserting “a spurious immunity based on his appointment as a Caribbean diplomat in London.” The judge found “no evidence Mr. Juffali had any knowledge of maritime matters, seaborne trade, shipping or indeed any of the specialized areas with which the IMO is concerned.”

The judge also was “satisfied that Mr. Juffali sought and obtained a diplomatic appointment with the sole intention of defeating Ms. Estrada’s claims consequent on the breakdown of their marriage. Mr. Juffali has not in any real sense taken up his appointment, nor has he discharged any responsibilities connected with it. I draw back from calling it a sham, mindful of the precision required to support such a conclusion.” The judge also threw out Juffali’s claim he was beyond the arm of the court in the matter at hand because he was not resident in the UK. Saint Lucia’s prime minister expressed his disappointment with the court’s ruling. He promised further comment following the outcome of Juffali’s appeal.

On Tuesday the verdict was in. Among other observations the appeal court judges held that the high court judge “erred in his approach to the immunity issue and was wrong to hold that [Juffali] was not in principle entitled to immunity from [Estrada’s] claim for financial relief . . .” As to whether Juffali was a permanent resident in the UK, the appeal court upheld Justice Hayden’s decision that indeed Juffali was, and therefore he was “not entitled to immunity since his [former wife’s claim] does not arise in respect of official acts performed in the exercise of his functions.”

Finally the appeal court concluded that Walid Juffali was “not entitled to immunity because he is permanently resident in the UK and the claim does not relate to any official acts performed by him in the exercise of his functions.” Juffali’s appeal was dismissed. Christina Estrada is now free to pursue her claims on his property portfolio in the UK, which her ex-husband had sought to prevent by claiming immunity in the name of the government and people of Saint Lucia.

Often over the last several weeks Saint Lucia’s prime minister had claimed he was wary of setting “a dangerous precedent” by lifting Juffali’s presumed immunity in relation to his ex-wife’s claim. It turns out a precedent has indeed been set, at any rate in the UK: the Juffali matter marked the first time a divorcee ever sought to block a settlement hearing on the basis of diplomatic immunity. In any event, Juffali’s IMO status finally proved irrelevant.

As for the prime minister’s recent statement that the court had “legitimized” Juffali’s diplomatic status, that question was never before a court. What was in question was whether the immunities it offered extended to his ex-wife’s claim. Two courts have agreed they do not—not to mention the Vienna Convention that stipulates at Section 31 that diplomatic privileges and immunities are not to benefit individuals but to ensure the efficient performance of the functions of diplomatic missions of representing States.

No date has yet been released as to the start of work on the Juffali Diabetes Research Center. Among other matters previously unmentioned is that Saint Lucia’s generous Saudi lover has for some time been hospitalized at a Zurich hospital. Meanwhile, from the once garrulous External Affairs minister Alva Baptiste, not a word, not a word, not a word!

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