Back in 2008, Princess Shekha Alnehayan, as well as her seven daughters, arrived in Brussels and booked a luxury suite – which is an entire floor, according to the Tribune de Geneve media outlet – at the Conrad Hotel for several months.
The women brought with them up to 23 servants of eight different nationalities, who “were not paid” and “worked day and night and had to sleep on the floor.”
They were also “shouted at” and abused by the princesses, who refused to let the staff leave the hotel, according to Patricia LeCocq, spokesperson for the Belgian human rights organization Myria, as cited by Deutsche Welle.
Later, one of the workers managed to escape and ran to the nearest police station, describing the situation and prompting law enforcement officers to later show up at the hotel.
At the time, one of the maids, identified as Jamila, told local media outlet La Derniere Heure: "I did not have a room, I slept in the corridor on the floor. There was constant verbal abuse. The princesses did not like their Moroccan and Tunisian maids. They called us b****es."
An investigation was subsequently launched, but took almost a decade to make its way to a Belgian court. The princesses’ defense team has repeatedly claimed that security forces violated their rights by searching their suite in Brussels.
The princesses are now standing trial, however, with the first hearing taking place on Thursday. The women face charges of human trafficking and breaching Belgian labor regulations.
One possible explanation as to why the case took so long to make it to court is the lack of attention from the media, activists said.
"I couldn't believe that the media didn't report on this more," Nicholas McGeehan from Human Rights Watch told Deutsche Welle.
McGeehan hopes that the latest trial will change things for the better. According to the rights activist, if the women are convicted, "it will link one of the wealthiest families in the world to human trafficking and slavery."
However, there is little chance of success, activists said.“The problem is that this case is already several years old. Even if the princesses are convicted, chances are the verdict could be very mild,” Le Cocq noted.
In January, the European Court of Human Rights reviewed a case involving a family from Dubai bringing three Philippine servants to Vienna, with the women reportedly having to take care of the children and household round the clock, and being threatened whenever they made a mistake.
However, the court decided that the trial had "no realistic chance of success" as there is no legal basis between the UAE and Austria to carry out such proceedings.