UAE court lifts jail sentence of U.S. lawyer Asim Ghafoor

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 United Arab Emirates court has lifted a prison sentence but upheld a conviction on money laundering charges for U.S. citizen and civil rights attorney Asim Ghafoor, who was detained while transiting through Dubai last month, a lawyer for Ghafoor said on Wednesday.

The court ordered Ghafoor to pay a 5 million dirham (an equivalent of $1.36 million) fine and for 18 million dirhams in his account to be confiscated. But it removed a three-year jail term from an earlier sentence handed down in absentia in May, lawyer Habib Al Mulla said.

The lawyer did not say whether Ghafoor, who is based in Virginia, had been released. UAE authorities and the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment on the case.

Ghafoor, who helped set up a human rights group with slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, had been detained at Dubai International Airport based on the absentia court conviction, following an investigation that the UAE said had been launched in 2020 based on a request for assistance from U.S. authorities.

The UAE Embassy in Washington on Monday said the Emirati investigation had determined Ghafoor had committed tax evasion and money laundering by moving at least $4.9 million in international transfers through the UAE banking system.

The in absentia trial and his detention on July 14 while U.S. President Joe Biden was visiting the region had drawn criticism from rights groups and some members of Congress.

The United States has not confirmed it requested the Emirati investigation and said Ghafoor was not detained at Washington’s request.

Ghafoor’s supporters have said he was not aware of the charges, with some U.S. lawmakers suggesting the arrest may be political and mentioning his ties to Khashoggi, who was murdered by Saudi agents in Turkey in 2018.

UAE authorities have consistently described the case as strictly one of financial crimes.

U.S. intelligence says Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation in which Khashoggi was killed. The prince has denied involvement. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are close allies.

According to Ghafoor’s website, Ghafoor helped Khashoggi incorporate U.S.-based rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) in 2018 and is a member of its board.

DAWN had called for his immediate release, saying the May conviction was obtained without due process, a criticism that has been taken up by members of the U.S. Congress.

The UAE Embassy said Ghafoor has received due process since his arrest, local legal counsel and regular contact with his family and with U.S. consular officials. It said his request for bail was denied in a previous court hearing pending appeal.

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