‘‘THEY are holed up at home and terrified this is Armageddon,” says Naghmeh King, her distress unalleviated by the sunshine pouring into her apartment with its idyllic views over the Costa del Sol.
“They think coronavirus is the great plague God prophesied and they will only be saved if their belief in Jehovah is strong enough” adds the 50-year-old mother of Ashya King.
The family made global headlines in 2014 when she and her husband fled Britain for Spain seeking ground-breaking brain cancer treatment for their youngest son, now 10, sparking an international manhunt leading to their arrest and imprisonment in Madrid.
Six years after that heart-rending saga, Naghmeh is in flight from a new terror: the global control of the Jehova’s Witnesses clan.
“The children are scared, so scared, and their father is being so strict,” she reveals. “Do this, do that, making them say their prayers before every meal and repeat them after him every night.”
Naghmeh is talking about husband Brett, 56, and their seven children, locked down in the family home in Milton Keynes that she managed to escape just before the travel ban was enforced.
“I couldn’t deal with it and came at the beginning of March,” she tells the Olive Press at the modest three bedroom apartment in Casares, near Estepona, where she has pinned up photos of her children on the wall. Various dictionaries and bibles are strewn on the coffee table.
“I told them I would come and self isolate here, where I will be safe. Brett said he didn’t want me to leave the house, he does not have enough faith that God will protect him. He thinks he will die from the coronavirus. I couldn’t take it anymore.”
It is a cautionary tale and moving proof that extreme religion can sometimes break up families.
Talking to the paper to express her ‘disgust’ at the religion she has been trying to leave for years, she claims her husband has been ‘brainwashed’ by the Jehovah’s Witnesses who ‘owe’ her a five-figure sum of money. More of which later.
Hers is a story that was thrust into the global spotlight when she and husband Brett, from Portsmouth, decided that the cancer treatment their then-five-year-old son Ashya was receiving in Southampton was a danger to his life.
Believing he needed the much more benign Proton Beam Therapy (PBT) – which at €70,000 the NHS trust would not fund – they smuggled him out of the hospital and drove straight onto a ferry from Portsmouth to Europe to prevent him becoming a ward of court.
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They planned to make for their holiday home in Malaga where four of their children were born and where they hoped the gentler Mediterranean climate would allow Ashya to recuperate while they sought PBT elsewhere.
But their departure led to a global outcry with Interpol quickly called in to locate them.
While they attempted to lay low in a hotel in neighbouring Axarquia they were not hard to locate, being nine in number counting the other children, Danny, now 29, Naveed, 26, Sirus, 20, Yusha, 14, Matty, 13, and Sion, 8.
“Basically, the receptionist found out who we were and called the police,” recalls Naghmeh today. “Ashya was taken to hospital in Malaga and we were taken to jail. We were kept for three days in a police cell in Malaga, then prison in Madrid.
“It was really, really bad, I never knew how the authorities worked, they took over our life. We were charged with child cruelty and I feared losing Ashya for good. I was so scared.”
Thanks to a massive response by the UK media – and the Olive Press, which worked closely with them, aiding their appeal – a petition was raised asking for their release, allowing them to be reunited with Ashya.
“An amazing 250,000 people demanded that Ashya should be given back to us,” continues Naghmeh, recalling the emergency court hearing in Madrid, linked up to the High Court in London, where it was agreed they should be allowed to take their son for emergency PBT treatment in Prague.
“Our lawyer Juan Isidro, from Sevilla, was excellent and really helped get us out,” she insists. “Soon Ashya was getting treatment in Prague.”
Naghmeh’s story began when her Iranian family sent her to do her A-levels in England at the age of 16
While her son is slowly improving from the trauma of brain surgery to remove a tumour, he still has profound disabilities, she reveals (see side bar).
Now Naghmeh is going through another major upheaval in her life, having decided to leave the church she became involved in at the age of 20, some three decades ago.
Insisting it is definitively the time to move on, she is making an urgent, heart-felt appeal to her husband to leave the religion too and join her in Spain with their family, at least the youngest four.
It is clear she means it and – having known her for six years and spoken to her on various occasions – she and I both know it will be a battle as tough as the one she went through with Ashya.
Naghmeh’s story began when her Iranian family sent her to do her A-levels in England at the age of 16. Packing her off from Tehran to Blackburn, where she had an uncle, they hoped she might end up at Cambridge with a career in architecture or medicine.
“But things all changed when I met Brett, who was a bank manager, in Cambridge, with a second job running a guesthouse business,” she explains, with a glint in her eye. “He was 24 and we quickly fell in love and got married a year later.”
While her parents were not happy with her decision, wanting her to come home to Iran, the pair led a charmed life, with the income Brett was making from his two jobs.
They bought a leafy home in Milton Keynes, but their happiness was short lived when Brett was jailed for falsifying mortgage forms (a ‘white collar crime’, Naghmeh insists) which ended up getting him sacked from his bank job.
His term was only a year in the low security Bedford prison, but it would have a long-lasting effect on his life and their relationship, she insists today.
“It was horrible for him and he came out all skinny,” she remembers. “But while there he took a close interest in religion…particularly from a cell mate who taught him about Noah’s ark and the floods. And it was then that he started to say the Lord’s Prayer before meals and before going to bed.”
So when a few months after getting out they received the proverbial knock on the door from a pair of local Jehovah’s Witnesses, Brett immediately took an interest.
“His name was Michael Michaels, a Greek guy, and he gave him a few magazines which Brett found interesting,” recalls Naghmeh.
Three weeks later Michaels returned to persuade Brett to go to the local Kingdom Hall for a meeting.
“I refused to go, I was not interested and kept throwing the magazines out. I told him they were simply brainwashing him.”
But almost inevitably, she finally got sucked in and while she disliked the endless meetings and the way the ‘elders’ sometimes treated her children, she started to believe that she could save people’s lives and immersed herself in the religion.
The indoctrination continued as the couple launched their own successful property business renovating and selling homes in Milton Keynes, and starting a family.
“I’m definitely happier now I’ve left, I feel free and have got more time to think and study”
They ended up buying a trio of homes on the Costa del Sol from the proceeds and finally moved to Spain ‘to learn Spanish and lead a simpler, holier life’, in 1999.
They arrived, via Honduras, with three children in tow, with Brett firstly working as a gardener before landing a cushy job as an estate agent with Kristina Szekely and later Interealty.
Over the next decade they had four more kids – all born in Marbella’s Costa del Sol hospital – and ended up meeting a large group of like-minded families via the various Jehovah’s groups on the coast.
“I sort of put up with it and we had to go to church two or three times a week, we couldn’t celebrate birthdays, or Christmas, Halloween or Easter, and they kept telling us that in the next few years Armageddon would happen and everyone would die,” says Naghmeh.
“They want you to believe that the world is a terrible place. It was a joyless religion and it is no surprise that tens of thousands are leaving it every year,” she adds with a shudder.
After the drama with Ashya they returned to the UK, but life back there made Naghmeh think long and hard about the religion and her role in it.
“I have now completely come out and three years ago I told Brett I wanted to leave. I wrote a letter to the church and told Brett to deliver it. But he said he wouldn’t give them the bad news.
“I just feel so angry that we have paid them so much money. I worked out it is £42,000 and I want it back. They give you books and say they need money for electricity and to advertise, advertise, advertise. I’m writing to them to get it back.”
She continues: “I’m definitely happier now I’ve left, I feel free and have got more time to think and study.
“Now I just want my children back. I want them to come over and live with me here in Spain and I have been looking at bigger homes to rent.
“Brett and I have not really discussed it, but I don’t want to go home.
“Brett is fairly brainwashed by it, right now for sure.
“I keep telling him we should sit down and discuss it, not allow other men in a church tell us what to do.
“Brett’s been telling me about divorce, he said if I’m not part of the religion he won’t allow the children to talk to me. It’s illegal. It is more serious.
“It hasn’t got to the stage of a lawyer, but I am being really firm with him when speaking on the phone.
“I’ve told him I don’t want them to have to pray in the house any more. We can read the bible ourselves and discuss it, of course, but no more brainwashing.”
Ashya six years on
THE courageous youngster was declared cancer free two years ago, making the remarkable recovery only his parents believed in. But Ashya still has many more battles to fight.
He is still profoundly disabled and may never fully recover, as his mother Naghmeh tells the Olive Press in her own heartfelt words.
“He is OK, he can go up the stairs by himself but he has to sit down to come down the stairs. He can walk a few steps, but often falls. He is still paralysed and has a crossed eye as well.
“They took a big part of his brain, during the eight hour operation but chemotherapy would have killed him. We were told he would not have sight or hearing after it. His ears would dry out, his eyes would dry out. But they said Proton Beam Therapy would not work on his cancer, and would not fund it. We realised we had to leave, get away from England … the state would have taken him away so we didn’t say anything.
“We knew he was making progress, his eyes were opening and shutting, he was moving. We felt he needed a chance to recuperate. We couldn’t risk him losing his sight or hearing. It was an intense pressurised time travelling with him in the car. I had to feed him through his nostrils, he could not eat or swallow anything, he couldn’t even drink water, he was totally paralysed.
“He can’t write properly yet, his hand shakes, but he is starting to read and do sums. He has one to one in the class, he needs someone to hold his hand at school, but he can’t do secondary school and he cannot stay at the school he is at now. In Spain he can.
If he came here they would take his shunt out (a valve and tube which takes brain fluid into the stomach and the spine) and he could then go to school here in Spain.”In 2016, two years after the start of Ashya’s own treatment, Britain’s NHS decided it will pay for children with brain cancer to travel abroad for proton beam therapy.