How a Girl's Murder Led to a Coca-Cola Boycott

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Farouk Abdulhaq is wanted for the rape and murder of Martine Vik Magnussen. Illustration by Gluekit

The night of her murder began with a celebration.

On an early spring evening in 2008, Martine Vik Magnussen, a 23-year-old Norwegian beauty, curled her long, blond hair and accented her blue-green eyes with eye shadow, before heading to the smart London club Maddox with friends to celebrate upcoming holidays and high scores on her latest Regents College exams.

At the club in London’s Mayfair district was her friend Farouk Abdulhaq, the jet-setting son of a Yemeni billionaire, who, friends recalled later, had been feeling pressure from his father to clean up his party-boy image and, on this night, didn’t appear his usual lighthearted self.

Despite Abdulhaq’s peculiar mood, Magnussen left with him when the club closed, police believe. When she didn’t return to her apartment the next day, her friends became concerned. In a Norwegian documentary, they recounted how, reaching out to Abdulhaq over Facebook to see if he knew of her whereabouts, they noticed that he had changed his status around 4 that morning. “Farouk,” it said, “is home alone.” Soon after, Abdulhaq’s profile disappeared, they told the TV crew.

Police say they found Magnussen’s body in the basement of Abdulhaq’s apartment building two days later, partly covered with garbage. One of her earrings had been ripped from her ear, and her face was badly bruised. There was a blood trail from her body up the stairwell to Abdulhaq’s second-floor apartment, which showed signs of a struggle. A neighbor reported hearing strange noises in the middle of the night, and, by 2009, British authorities placed Abdulhaq on Scotland Yard’s Most Wanted list in connection with the rape and murder of Magnussen. They also issued an international warrant for his arrest. But, by then, Abdulhaq had left the country. Investigators found that he had left for Cairo just hours after the murder, flying onward from Egypt to Yemen.

Farouk’s father, Shaher Abdulhaq, is one of Yemen’s most powerful businessmen. At the time of the murder, his business empire included a range of luxury hotels and ownership of Yemen’s primary cellular network. He was also the main Mercedes importer and counted a large ownership stake in Coca-Cola bottling and distribution in the Middle East.

Since Yemen holds no extradition agreement with Great Britain, Magnussen’s father, Odd Petter Magnussen, tried diplomatic channels but with little luck. Meetings with the Norwegian foreign ministry and high-level British politicians brought promises but no results. Meanwhile, the Yemeni government offered to try Abdulhaq in country. The nation’s brutal and corrupt legal system, based on Sharia, punishes rape and murder with death; the convict is usually shot in the back of the head while laying facedown on the ground, and Magnussen’s father felt that neither that nor the unsolicited offer he got from strangers who suggested they’d fly to Yemen and kill Abdulhaq themselves would offer real justice for his daughter. What he wanted was for Abdulhaq to stand trial in Britain. “It is the only way to honor my daughter’s memory,” he told NEWSWEEK. “It can’t be possible to take a life in one place, get on a bus, and not have to suffer the consequences.”

Shaher Abdulhaq has so far declined media interviews but confirms through a PR person in London that his son is in Yemen. However, through his representative, he asserts that his son is not financially dependent on him; that he has encouraged him to return to Britain but that his son, so far, has refused; and that, in fact, the two have a strained relationship.

In Norway, meanwhile, the case has become a cause célèbre. In late 2010, seven Norwegian lawmakers drafted a series of letters to a number of multinational corporations connected with Shaher Trading, asking them to cut ties with the company on moral and ethical grounds. (Shaher Abdulhaq responded by threatening to sue the politicians for defamation and malicious falsehood.) Daimler-Benz subsequently dropped all business dealings with Shaher Abdulhaq but would not confirm that this was a direct result of the letters. Xerox started looking into the matter but Coca-Cola, effectively, said it wasn’t their problem. Communications director of Coca-Cola in Norway, Steir Rømmerud, told the Verdens Gang newspaper that while the company felt for the family, it was the responsibility of local and international police to solve the matter. “We have no ties to the suspect, and the suspect’s father is only indirectly involved in Coca-Cola as an investor in bottling operations,” he said, according to the paper. But a group called Justice for Martine wasn’t appeased and decided to take the battle against Abdulhaq online. Via a Facebook page, members encouraged a boycott of Coca-Cola products, starting March 1 this year. Within the first two weeks, more than 53,000 people signed up. “What we had hoped to achieve was to show Shaher Abdulhaq that this issue will not be swept under the table,” said Marcus Rolandsen, chairman of the foundation. (The foundation has also filed a civil complaint against the younger Abdulhaq in Norwegian courts for failing to respond to summons, and is considering further legal action in the United States.) While the boycott didn’t represent a massive economic impact on the behemoth company, the campaign was a potential threat to the Coca-Cola brand, and on March 14, the company released a statement announcing its decision to sever all ties with Abdulhaq. Joel Morris, spokesperson for Coca-Cola Europe, says Shaher Abdulhaq no longer holds financial interests in bottling operations in Libya or Egypt, has agreed to step down from the board of directors of the unit in Egypt, and is in the process of divesting his investments in Yemen. Morris adds that discussions on this matter began before the boycott, but that “our conversations with the campaign group did bring new urgency to the process.” The boycott’s success shows how Facebook and other social-media networks make it possible to take on multinational corporations, using a low-cost but very visual form of campaigning, says Clay Shirky, an author of several books on the effects of social media, “It’s not called good will in the balance sheet for nothing,” he says. Although the younger Abdulhaq remains at large, Magnussen’s father is optimistic that a solution is imminent. “You have to believe in the good in people, and that ethics will prevail in this case.”

Editor's Note: NEWSWEEK originally reported that Farouk Abdulhak travelled from Egypt to Yemen on his father's private jet. It is unclear how he made this leg of the journey.

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