Diana and Dodi: The Inquest

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Diana and Dodi: The Inquest (part one)

The inquest into the death of Princess Diana and Dodi al Fayed began at 11am in Court 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice in London. It was undoubtedly an historic moment that will be remembered for generations to come; but it was also a rather subdued occasion, that felt inappropriately mundane given the task that coroner Lord Justice Scott Baker informed the eleven jurors they had been entrusted with: “What we are going to get to is the truth.” Given a decade of relentless speculation, none of which has been allayed by two previous investigations, it was a bold statement, writes Jonathan Taylor. In keeping with the sombre mood Court 73 was as bare and as stark as the inquest is likely to be complex and controversial. The courtroom walls were painted a dreary beige and the furniture functional. The legal teams were unrobed and surrounded by desks filled with rows of computer. There was little to give the opening of the inquest any sense of drama, except for the voice of the white-haired coroner filling the air: “In the early hours of Sunday the 31st of August 1997, a Mercedes motor car in which Diana, Princess of Wales, was a passenger, crashed into a pillar in the central reservation of the Alma underpass in Paris . . .”

One figure immediately stood out from the crowd. Michael Mansfield QC, easily identifiable by his long, flowing silver hair and his confident demeanour. By calling upon the services of such a high profile advocate,Mohamed al Fayed has ensured his views will be given a powerful presentation.Mansfield is regarded as one of the country’s leading criminal barristers. He is also a colourful character and a savvy self-publicist: a republican, a vegetarian and a socialist, most of whose work comes from legal aid, he began his legal career in 1967 and became Queen’s Counsel in 1989. He has often taken on controversial cases with an anti-establishment tinge, such as defending the Guildford Four, wrongly imprisoned for the Guildford Pub bombings in the 1970s. Twice married Mansfield is currently President of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. Also noted on the opening day was Princess Diana’s sister, Lady Sarah McCorquodale. Lady Sarah was there to represent the executors of her late sister’s estate. Next to her sat Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, private secretary to Princes William and Harry. His task is to represent the TRH’s interests at the inquest. To one side of the court sat Mohamed al Fayed, flanked by PRs, security staff and advisers. The Harrods owner listened intently throughout. Without the efforts of Mr. Fayed the inquest would not have been called. His belief that the British secret services killed Diana and Dodi is not supported by hard evidence, but his undiminished conviction that foul play was involved does give pause for thought: it might just be true?

Despite the previous French and British investigations, which both concluded that the cause of death was a car accident, Dodi’s grieving father has campaigned relentlessly to have his day in court in front of a jury; whilst the Royal Family and the Spencer family had hoped that Lord Stevens’ report, published in December 2006, would close the matter once and for all. Many argue that little new can be revealed by further inquiry; however Mohamed al Fayed remains adamant that his lawyers can demonstrate that the tragedy of August 31, 1997, was nothing less than murder. Such is the interest that the inquest has its own website, which informs the public: “Lord Justice Scott Baker has been appointed as Assistant Deputy Coroner for Inner West London for the purposes of hearing the Inquests into the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and Emad El-Din Mohamed Abdel Moneim Fayed (Mr. Dodi AlFayed). The purpose of this website is to keep the public informed of details relating to the Inquests, including transcripts of the proceedings and evidence seen by the jury.”

Formally there are two inquests, one on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the other on the death of Dodi al Fayed, which are being held as is the case with any sudden, violent or unusual death of a person where the body is returned to Britain. The inquest is not a trial, there is no prosecution and no defence; rather it is a search for truth along more inquisitorial lines. The objective is to answer how, when and where the cause of death arose. It seems unlikely, unless some remarkable new evidence surfaces, that there is sufficient evidence for foul play to be the conclusion, but the inquest does provide a forum in which Mohamed al Fayed can bring his claims that Diana and Dodi were victims of a high level plot. Ultimately the verdict may not be the most significant result of the proceedings; the question also is will the conspiracy theories (as presented by those who believe in them rather than the French investigators or Lord Stevens) stand up to scrutiny and remain credible possibilities. Lord Justice Scott Baker has identified twenty “likely issues” which the inquest will examine:

1. Whether driver error on the part of Henri Paul caused or contributed to the cause of the collision.  2. Was Henri Paul’s ability to drive impaired through drink or drugs. 3. Did a Fiat Uno or any other vehicle caused or contribute to the collision. 4. Did the actions of the Paparazzi cause or contribute to the cause of the collision. 5. Whether the road/tunnel layout and construction were inherently dangerous and if so whether this contributed to the collision. 6. Whether any bright/flashing lights contributed to or caused the collision and, if so, their source. 7. Whose decision it was that the Princess of Wales and Dodi al Fayed should leave from the rear entrance to the Ritz and that Henri Paul should drive the vehicle 8. Henri Paul’s movements between 7 and 10 pm on 30August 1997. 9. The explanation for the money in Henri Paul’s possession on 30 August 1997 and in his bank account. 10. Whether James Andanson was in Paris on the night of the collision. 11. Whether the Princess of Wales’ life would have been saved if she had reached hospital sooner or if her medical treatment had been different. 12. Whether the Princess of Wales was pregnant. 13. Whether the Princess of Wales and Dodi Al Fayed were about to announce their engagement. 14. Whether and, if so in what circumstances, the Princess of Wales feared for her life. 15. The circumstances relating to the purchase of the ring. 16. The circumstances in which the Princess of Wales’ body was embalmed. 17. Whether the evidence of former secret agent Tomlinson throws any light on the collision. 18. Whether the British or any other security services had any involvement in the collision. 19. Whether there was anything sinister about (i) the Cherruault burglary or (ii) the disturbance at the Big Pictures agency. 20. Whether correspondence belonging to the Princess of Wales (including some from Prince Philip) has disappeared, and if so the circumstances.

The jury has been selected from an initial list of 227. From that initial list eighty potential jurors appeared at the Royal Court of Justice in London to be questioned over their suitability.Lord Justice Scott Baker told them that this was no ordinary case: “Millions of words have been spoken and written.There are numerous books, television programmes, articles that have been published, some by those who are closely involved in surrounding events and some not.” Potential jurors were warned: “If there are any articles in the newspapers do not read them and if there are any television programmes about the death of Diana or any news items about these inquests, you should not look at them.” The jury candidates, who had been randomly selected from the electoral roll for the catchment area of inner west London coroner’s court, were also required to declare whether they had “any business or enterprise” connected to Mr. Fayed. This included his London Harrods store and Fulham Football Club – where he is chairman. The court also ordered candidates to reveal any connection to MI5, MI6, government listening post GCHQ, the Metropolitan Police,the Ritz Hotel in Paris, from where Diana and Dodi set off on the night they died, or any of the witnesses involved in the case. The final eleven jurors were chosen by ballot. The inquest is anticipated to last up to six months, during which time the jurors will be taken to court each day under police escort.

However, members of the Royal Family will not appear, although Princes William and Harry are represented. Other “interested parties” include Lady Sarah McCorquodale (for the Spencer family), the parents of Henri Paul and the president of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. And, unusually, the secret services and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office are also represented. At the opening of proceedings it was not clear how many witnesses would be called. Michael Mansfield has a large list of some 68 witnesses he would like to call, but it is anticipated that Lord Justice Scott Baker will only allow around a dozen at most. It is within the coroner’s discretion to decide who should be called. Witnesses can be compelled to attend. Some of the evidence will be heard via video-link from Paris. The opening day of the inquest threw up points of dispute as Mohamed al Fayed’s legal team objected to the Royal Family not being called upon to give evidence. Mr. Fayed is adamant that the Queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles must give evidence so that the inquest jury receive the “plain,unvarnished truth” about the events leading up to the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi. Conspiracy theories persist about a state-organised assassination, based on the belief that senior royals did not want Diana to marry a Muslim.

Mohamed al Fayed has been particularly vocal with his belief that Prince Philip had a hand in Diana and Dodi’s deaths. Mr. Fayed’s spokesman, Michael Cole, said the Harrods boss was hopeful that Lord Justice Scott Baker would reverse his decision not to call members of the Royal Family as witnesses: “We believe that everyone who has relevant evidence should be prepared to give evidence. If we are to arrive at the plain, unvarnished truth then we must have all the witnesses and all the evidence without exception. This is the last best chance to get at the plain, unvarnished truth about what happened ten years, two months ago. At stages in her life the only person Diana could talk to in confidence in the Royal Family was the Queen. She has an unrivalled knowledge of the Princess’ state of mind. The Queen had a long conversation with Paul Burrell. “According to Burrell’s first book the Queen said to him, ‘There are dark forces at work in this country about which we know little’. Did she say it? If she did what did she mean? Was she referring to the security services? Those are questions that can legitimately be put.”

It is extremely unlikely that any members of the Royal Family will be called upon to give evidence and a spokesman said that no members of the Royal Family had been asked to give evidence, despite the formal request from Mr. Fayed’s legal team. Nonetheless, Mr. Fayed’s determination has already seen successful legal challenges which prevented the inquest being held in private with a jury comprising of members of the Royal Household. Mr. Fayed has also suffered defeats in the courts. Simultaneous to the inquest, Human Rights judges in Strasbourg ruled against a case brought by Mr. Fayed which sought to prove that the French inquiry was bungled, in particular with regard to the alleged failure of investigators to look into why Diana’s body was embalmed in France almost immediately after the crash. What it all means is that the inquest in London, with or without members of the Royal Family giving evidence, will be the forum in which the conspiracy theories will be put to the test. Lord Justice Scott Baker outlined the 10 key points on which Mohamed al Fayed bases his claim that Diana and Dodi were murdered.

1. Driver Henri Paul was an informant of British intelligence, MI6, and was given £2,000 by secret service agents in Paris the day before the crash. 2. Henri Paul was not drunk but has in fact been subjected to a smear campaign suggesting he was intoxicated that night. 3. Princess Diana’s phone calls were being monitored by MI6 and the CIA, who had learned that she was preparing to announce her engagement to Dodi. 4. MI6 is known to be involved in assassinations, amongst their activities was a plot to kill the Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. 5. Two senior MI6 agents were at the British embassy in Paris on the night of 30 August 1997 and orchestrated Princess Diana’s death.6. Princess Diana’s body was illegally embalmed in Paris to cover up an alleged pregnancy, on the orders of the British authorities in the French capital. 7. The results of the post-mortem examination on Henri Paul were falsified, with blood samples switched by MI6 to show excessive amounts of alcohol in his blood. 8. The security services made sure that all CCTV cameras along the route taken by the Mercedes were “inoperative”. 9. The crash was caused by a blinding flash from a “stungun” and a deliberate collision with a Fiat Uno, which has never been traced. 10. The Alma tunnel, where the crash took place, was not on the obvious route Henri Paul would normally have taken from the Ritz hotel to Dodi’s flat and there is “no credible explanation” for why he chose to go through the tunnel.

However, Lord Justice Scott Baker’s comments regarding the conspiracy theories brought an angry response from Mr.Fayed’s representatives. Addressing the jury, the coroner said: “You may think that all the evidence largely points to the collision being a tragic accident . . . that the cause was driver error.” But, he continued, from the night of the crash, Mr. Fayed had “not accepted” that explanation. The judge noted that Mr. Fayed was not alone in his suspicions: “There are many members of the public who are concerned that something sinister may lie behind circumstances surrounding the events of that night. What we are going to get to is the truth . . . so we will look at some allegations which have publicly been advanced in support of various conspiracy theories, even if they are not supported by Mr. Fayed.” Lord Justice Scott Baker pointed out that Princess Diana had made claims of her own. Diana had told confidants that Prince Charles was planning to have both her and Camilla Parker Bowles killed, after which the Queen would abdicate.The coroner also expressed his doubts about the theory that Diana was pregnant at the time she died. He said the famous picture of Diana in a leopardskin swimsuit, taken in July 1997, and often used as evidence of a pregnancy because her stomach appears to be bulging, was taken before her relationship with Dodi had begun. The coroner also suggested comments made to journalists by Diana at the same time (when she said they would “get a big surprise with the next thing I do”) had been cited as evidence of a pending engagement, but her romance with Dodi had also not begun at the time.

Lord Justice Scott Baker’s attempts to give background and context to the conspiracy theories seemed to some as leading the jury and a spokesman for Mr. Fayed said he feared that the coroner’s comments could “present an appearance of bias whether or not this was intended”. Getting the inquest started had proven to be an event in itself and the release o fpreviously unseen CCTV footage from the Paris Ritz on the night of 30 August 1997 ensured that the last hours of Diana and Dodi yet again filled the front pages of Britain’s newspapers. The court was shown CCTV footage from inside and outside the Ritz Hotel in the hours before the crash. The images were certainly poignant. They include footage of the couple arriving at the hotel’s back entrance during the day, in a lift and walking along a corridor, with the Princess’ bodyguard Trevor Rees Jones, as well as Henri Paul going off duty.The quality of the CCTV was not particularly good and those hoping to surmise Henri Paul’s physical condition were disappointed. Other images showed Diana and Dodi returning to the hotel at night after cancelling plans to visit a restaurant for dinner because of intense paparazzi interest. They then spent nine minutes in the hotel restaurant before changing plans again and instead dined in their Imperial Suite. Another point of interest were the alleged letters from Prince Philip to Princess Diana, letters which Paul Burrell claims existed and Lady Sarah McCorquodale denies. The inquest heard that in 1998 Lady Sarah agreed to open a chest where the letters were supposed to have been kept, but she asserts that no letters from Prince Philip were found and believes they did not exist. Lord JusticeScott Baker told the inquiry: “We shall have to see whether the mystery unfolds in the coming weeks and you will have to consider whether they did and if so what significance is to be attached to the evidence.” The eleven jurors have a long and difficult task ahead of them with diametrically opposed versions to consider and a huge amount of evidence to sift through. Will their verdict be the last word on that tragic night? Only time will tell . . .

Royalty Magazine Vol. 20/09Royalty Magazine 2009