x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Security adviser sues airlines for Dh1.3bn

Special operations veteran was held in Abu Dhabi for trafficking weapons he claims he had permission to transport.

ABU DHABI // An American security contractor whose diverted flight led to his spending 37 days in prison is suing two airlines, including Etihad Airways, for a total of US$360 million (Dh1.3bn). James Hunter, a specialist assigned to improve security at Baghdad International Airport, had travelled from the United States to Frankfurt. From Germany, he was to fly to Dubai, then Iraq.

However, Mr Hunter was forced to take an alternative flight from Frankfurt to Abu Dhabi, where he was arrested on charges of gun trafficking and sentenced to a month in prison. He spent a total of 60 days in police custody in the UAE. His law suit, filed in the New York Eastern District Court on Monday, names Etihad and Lufthansa, who were due to operate his flight from Frankfurt to Abu Dhabi. Mr Hunter "seeks $360 million in compensatory damages for sixty days of intolerable captivity", according to the suit.

Etihad Airways, with whom Mr Hunter travelled to Abu Dhabi, said they would "vigorously" defend the accusations levelled against them. Of these 60 days, Mr Hunter spent 37 in Al Wathba prison after six days in a police-operated facility at Abu Dhabi International Airport, his lawyer said. The remaining 17 days of incarceration were spent in custody pending trial. Mr Hunter, a US air force special operations veteran of Operation Desert Storm, was working for Global Strategies Group. The company was hired by the Iraqi government to facilitate Baghdad International Airport security.

With a decorated 29 years of experience in the air force and in aviation security, Mr Hunter was hired by Global in 2006 and made several visits to Iraq as a security consultant. During his many months in Iraq, he concluded that more sophisticated weapons were needed for the security apparatus of the airport, according to the court documents. He persuaded his employer to allow him to "bring US-manufactured weapons, including a semi-automatic rifle, sighting accessories and handguns, with him on his next sojourn in Iraq", the statement reads.

Mr Hunter made the purchases in Spokane, Washington, and arranged for a United Airlines flight to Frankfurt, then a Lufthansa flight to Dubai, where he would connect to a flight on an Iraqi airline to Baghdad. "He contacted each airline he would fly with to confirm the status of his firearms as baggage and transporting his firearms," the defence says. Mr Hunter began his journey on July 29, 2008, with the firearms as his checked luggage. He arrived the next day at Frankfurt International Airport and learnt two hours later that his Lufthansa flight to Dubai had been cancelled because of a strike.

According to the court documents, Mr Hunter was told by Lufthansa agents that he could take an Etihad Airways flight to Abu Dhabi, then board a shuttle bus to Dubai and connect to his Baghdad flight. Mr Hunter said he told the Lufthansa agent that he had weapons in his checked luggage. "The Lufthansa agent replied, 'This is not a problem, now go, quickly, before the Etihad flight closes, pick up your boarding pass down the hall at the Etihad desk, and your bag will travel on the flight with you,'" the statement reads.

"Etihad knew or should have known about Hunter's firearms in his luggage because Etihad's contract of carriage permits a passenger to check firearms in baggage with Etihad, and plaintiff Hunter told Etihad's employee in Frankfurt he was the owner of firearms in his checked luggage," it adds. This claim is being challenged by Etihad Airways' head office in Abu Dhabi. "The passenger in question failed to declare that he was carrying a firearm in his checked luggage when questioned by Etihad check-in staff at Frankfurt Airport," a representative said. "He also failed to receive the necessary approvals from the UAE Government for transporting firearms into the UAE.

"Etihad will vigorously defend this case, which results from the passenger's own failure to declare his firearm at check-in and to obtain the necessary clearances from the UAE Government." Mr Hunter said he did not check the legality of transferring the firearms from Abu Dhabi to Dubai on the ground, as that had not been part of his original plan. Upon arriving in Abu Dhabi, he was detained and questioned. The statement says he was interrogated and deprived of sleep. He was tried in the Abu Dhabi Criminal Court of First Instance and found to have no proper documents for bringing firearms into the country. He was convicted of gun trafficking and sentenced to one month in prison, according to the court papers.

Last month, another former American serviceman, Michael Joslin, was detained at Dubai International Airport after a handgun was found in his luggage. The US State Department is now warning travellers that the UAE will confiscate weapons transported through a civilian airport. myoussef@thenational.ae