Yesterday a trial began in Belgium that has the potential to set a precedent in one of the more odious crimes against humanity being committed today: modern Arab slavery.

There are multiple organisations recruiting workers in impoverished regions of the world, promising them well-paid jobs in the Arab region. But these workers find, when arriving in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or the UAE, that a system called ‘Kafala’ makes their employer their legal guardian. Which means it is a crime to apply for a new job, without the permission of your old employer. It also means working around the clock, without prompt or regular pay and facing abuse and beatings.

And what’s worse, when your masters travel, you travel.

In 2008, UAE princess Shekha Alnehayan and her seven daughters travelled to Brussels with 19 other servants, attending to the eight princesses 24/7, without enough food, without a bed – and without a visa, let alone a work permit.

According to Patricia LeCocq, spokesperson for the Belgian human rights organisation Myria:

The servants were not paid, they worked day and night and had to sleep on the floor. The princesses shouted at them and abused them continually,

This modern case of slavery in the heart of the EU only came to light when one of the servants fled, and told of revealed her situation to the police. Triggering investigations, the police found all the allegations to be true and the case eventually came in appeared in front of a Belgian court.

A nine-year-long legal battle unfolded and now the princesses are now facing charges of violating labour laws and human trafficking.

According to Patricia LeCocq:

if the court decides there is enough evidence to support a charge of human trafficking, the accused may have to pay compensation to their employees and may even face a prison sentence. But 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.

Patrick Weegman, a Belgian lawyer specialising in international law, says that even if the princesses are found guilty “the chances are that the United Arab Emirates will refuse to extradite them,” allowing them to avoid their punishment.

Human rights activists Nicholas McGeehan, meanwhile, remains optimistic, thinking that:

the trial itself could have an effect. It will link one of the wealthiest families in the world to human trafficking and slavery.

In related news: the United Arab Emirates will remain a member of the UN Human Rights Council until 2018.