UAE jails U.S. lawyer Asim Ghafoor on money laundering charges

Civil rights lawyer and board member of rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), Asim Ghafoor is seen in this undated photo.

A court in the United Arab Emirates has jailed Asim Ghafoor, a U.S. citizen and civil rights attorney who previously served as a lawyer for slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, said U.S.-based rights group DAWN of whose board Ghafoor is a member.

He was sentenced to three years in prison, state news WAM reported on Saturday.

The Abu Dhabi Money Laundering Court convicted Ghafoor of committing “two crimes of tax evasion and money laundering related to a tax evasion operation in his country and sentenced him to three years in prison and a fine of three million dirhams (an equivalent of $816,748), with deportation from the UAE,” according to WAM.

According to WAM, the case came up when U.S. authorities asked for judicial assistance from the UAE regarding their investigations of Ghafoor for alleged tax evasion and making suspicious money transfers to the UAE, which prompted Abu Dhabi’s inquiry into his bank accounts.

The UAE Public Prosecution (PP) in Abu Dhabi started to implement and study the judicial assistance request and verify the nature of the financial transactions related to the accounts and bank transfer, WAM reported. The PP reportedly found suspicion of a money laundering crime that occurred in the country.

The PP “praised the mutual coordination to combat transnational crimes with the United States, which led to the arrest of the accused, and his presentation to the Abu Dhabi Criminal Court in accordance with the legal procedures established in this regard,” WAM reported.

A UAE government official confirmed Ghafoor was arrested while transiting through Dubai International Airport on July 14 on charges related to an in absentia conviction for money laundering pursuant to evidence heard by Emirati courts.

A senior U.S. administration official had told reporters earlier on Saturday that the United States was aware, but could not say whether President Joe Biden would raise the issue in bilateral talks with the UAE president on the sidelines of an Arab summit in Saudi Arabia.

“We are aware of the arrest of U.S. citizen Asim Ghafoor in the UAE. We have raised his detention at senior levels with Emirati authorities and requested additional information. We are watching his case closely and providing appropriate consular support; consular officers from the U.S. Embassy visited him today,” a State Department spokesperson said. “We have conveyed our expectation that Mr. Ghafoor’s rights to a fair and public hearing and to fair trial guarantees be fully respected and that he be treated humanely, as well as that U.S. rights to consular access be fully respected.”

“There’s no indication that it has anything to do with the Khashoggi issue,” the official added.

Saudi journalist Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents in 2018 at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in an operation that U.S. intelligence says Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved. The prince denies involvement.

Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) said in a statement on Friday that Ghafoor, a civil rights attorney based in Virginia, was en route to Istanbul to attend a family wedding.

The Emirati official said the UAE has granted a request by the U.S. embassy to conduct a consular visit and that since the original trial was held in absentia, Ghafoor is permitted to request a retrial.

“A request has been received and granted, resulting in the case being reopened, and the relevant legal proceedings are underway,” the official said.

DAWN cited U.S. consular officials as saying the lawyer was being held in a detention facility in Abu Dhabi and that Ghafoor stated he had no knowledge of any legal matter against him.

It said the conviction was obtained “without due process” and called for his immediate release.

“We are outraged at the unjustified detention of our board member and extremely concerned for his health and physical security given the well-documented record of abuse in the UAE, including torture and inhuman treatment,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of DAWN, said on Friday. “We urge the Biden administration to secure the release of an arbitrarily detained American lawyer before agreeing to meet with the UAE’s leader (Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan) in Jeddah tomorrow.”

Rights groups say the UAE has jailed hundreds of activists, academics and lawyers in unfair trails on broad charges.

The UAE has rejected such accusations as baseless and says it is committed to human rights under the country’s charters.

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