- Afsana Lachaux, 47, has not seen her beloved son Louis, five, for two years.
- She met her ex-husband Bruno in India in 2008, married him two years later.
- Marriage broke down in 2011, Dubai judges ruled that she was unfit mother.
- The reasons included inability to breastfeed and ‘not obeying’ her husband.
- Court used her ‘happy Christmas’ texts as evidence she was ‘un-Islamic’.
She was a high-flying civil servant who had been policy adviser for Gordon Brown and David Blunkett; he was a dashing French engineer.
And together they planned a luxurious new life amid the sun-drenched skyscrapers of Dubai.
For Afsana Lachaux, the marriage and the birth of a son, Louis, was an unexpected new lease of life. Today, however, it is not merely her dreams that have been destroyed, but her new family, too.
And at the heart of the devastation is a sharia court that she says has bullied and belittled her, falsely accusing her of kidnapping her own child and ruling her an unfit mother before granting custody of her son to her French Christian husband, Bruno.
Her case has even prompted the Foreign Office to issue a warning to British women living in the UAE that in the event of a marriage breakdown they will face custody proceedings under sharia law, irrespective of their religion or nationality.
Under its strict doctrine, which discriminates against women, wives are the property of their husbands and often the custodians of their children.
For Afsana, it has been nearly two years since she saw her beloved boy, now five, and she is unlikely to see him again until he is 18 – if ever.
To a Western audience at least, the claims against her seem extraordinary. In a secret hearing that was held in Afsana’s absence, Dubai judges ignored her evidence of what she describes as her husband’s controlling behaviour – instead citing her inability to breastfeed; the fact that Louis suffered from eczema; that some of her friends are gay; and that she did not obey her husband as proof that she was unfit to bring up her own son.
The court criticised the fact that Afsana had sent her husband ‘happy Christmas’ texts as evidence that she was ‘un-Islamic’ – despite her husband being Christian and Afsana herself being a non-practising Muslim.
Almost as incredible, she says, is the fact that the British Government accepts this brand of justice as legitimate and says there is little it can do to help.
Afsana, 47, met her ex-husband, who worked in aviation, in India in 2008, married him two years later and gave birth to Louis.
‘I was ecstatic. I’d been given this blessed, final chance to have another child later in life,’ she says.
‘I truly believed I was beginning the happiest period of my life. I quickly realised that the reality of being Bruno’s wife was vastly different from seeing him for what were like a string of holidays during our courtship.
‘From the moment I set foot on Emirati soil, I feel my fate was sealed,’ she says ruefully. ‘Bruno controlled all the finances. He was critical because I couldn’t breastfeed. He restricted access to the internet in our home. I naively didn’t know how little power women had.
‘When I wanted to work he suggested I become a maid. We had constant arguments because he said I wouldn’t obey him and he kept reminding me that we lived in an Islamic country now where a man’s word is law.’
By the beginning of 2011 the marriage had all but broken down after Afsana made a number of serious allegations about her husband’s behaviour, which he denies, but which she says left her feeling terrified.
When she and her husband argued, she was contacted by Dubai police who told her that he had alleged she attacked him and she must make a statement.
‘When I was at the station the police officers asked me why I didn’t obey my husband. It was obvious no one was listening to anything that I said,’ she says.
Afsana moved out of the family home – she says she had no choice – taking Louis. She was told she had no rights and was, effectively, left homeless. Without the financial support of her two grown-up sons from a previous marriage, she would have been destitute.
Although, as Louis’s mother, she still had custody of her son, she was charged with abduction and arrested, spending four hours in a cell with Louis. ‘We weren’t even given water,’ she recalls. ‘The cell was filthy and I had no idea why I was even there.’
Her passport was seized by police and she says she feared she would ‘disappear’ forever in Dubai’s secretive penal system.
After her release, Afsana made repeated appeals.
‘At one stage, when I pointed out to the Public Prosecutor that another woman, my husband’s former American girlfriend, had been forced to seek a restraining order against him, I was told: ‘It doesn’t matter [what your husband has done] in the USA , it is irrelevant in a UAE court.’
By February of 2012 she and her baby son moved to a women’s refuge. By now divorce proceedings were well under way, but yet again Afsana found herself being excluded from them.
Isolated and alone, Afsana fled the refuge with Louis and went into hiding. In her absence, the Sharia court ruled she ‘didn’t obey her husband, was careless in taking care of her son because of his eczema and spent evenings at nightclubs.’
The divorce was granted and Mr Lachaux, 38, was given custody of their son. Within days, on October 29, 2013, when one of Afsana’s friends was looking after Louis, her ex-husband took the child.
‘It had been my worst fear. It felt as though my world had ended,’ Afsana says. ‘I cried for weeks, begging the Foreign Office for help. But there was nothing they could do. The court had decreed my ex-husband had custody, no one could do anything about that.’
The Dubai justice system was not yet finished with her, however.
Out of the blue, Afsana was summoned to court to face the earlier abduction charges. She was found guilty and given a one-month sentence, suspended for three years.
On the day she was due to present her side of the argument to the courts and produce witnesses, the judge dismissed them, saying they did not have the correct identification – despite both having Dubai driving licences. Then, yet again, she was summoned by the Dubai police, this time because her ex-husband made a string of defamation complaints.
When, eventually, they were all dropped, Afsana’s passport was finally returned and in March 2014 her lawyers advised her to leave the country. ‘It was likely my passport was going to be seized again and they felt I should go while I still had it.’
Once home, Afsana began campaigning for custody of her son. But although she was granted a three- hour weekly visit, the authorities insisted her ex-husband only had to comply if Afsana was accompanied by a male relative and if she saw her son at Mr Lachaux’s Dubai home.
‘They made it impossible for me,’ she says sadly. ‘I know that the moment I set foot on Dubai soil I would be arrested again and my passport seized. My MP believe I would end up languishing in a Dubai prison for years. It’s a no-win situation. Right now I feel as though those sharia judges stole my son. And all I can do is hope.’
Today, her memories of her son are frozen in time. ‘He will be at school now,’ she says. ‘His schoolfriends will all have mothers. He must wonder where I am. I worry that he has been told I have abandoned him. Sharia law has allowed me to be wiped out of Louis’ life.’
In the meantime Afsana has launched a ‘Bring Louis home’ website that she uses to urge the Dubai authorities to let her have her son back and to write letters to Louis that she hopes one day he will read.
‘My only hope is that when he is 18, Louis will come looking for me.’
Mr Lachaux’s lawyers did not respond to a request for comment.