The United Arab Emirates has sentenced Asim Ghafoor, an American citizen and former lawyer of Jamal Khashoggi — the dissident Saudi journalist who was killed at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018 — to three years in prison on charges of money laundering and tax evasion.
- A US administration official said there is no indication that the arrest is related to the Khashoggi issue
- The UAE framed Mr Ghafoor’s arrest as a coordinated move with the US to combat transnational crimes
- Rights groups say the UAE has jailed hundreds of activists, academics and lawyers in unfair trails
Mr Ghafoor was also ordered to pay a fine of $US816,748 ($1.2 million) stemming from his in-absentia conviction, the UAE’s state-run WAM news agency reported, adding that he would be deported after completing his sentence.
Mr Ghafoor’s lawyer dismissed the charges as “absolutely not accurate at all.”
“I’m just hoping for a fair trial. I hope there’s no political motivation here,” his US-based lawyer Faisal Gill said.
“He had never heard anything about these charges and all of a sudden he’s put in jail.”
A UAE government official confirmed Mr 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.
The UAE framed Mr Ghafoor’s arrest as a coordinated move with the US to “combat transnational crimes.”
Emirati state-run media said US authorities had requested the UAE’s help with an investigation into Mr Ghafoor’s alleged tax evasion and suspicious money transfers in the Emirates.
A senior US administration official 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.
“There’s no indication that it has anything to do with the Khashoggi issue,” the official added
Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents in 2018 at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in an operation that US intelligence says Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved.
The prince denies involvement.
A US-based rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), of whose board Mr Ghafoor is a member, said in a statement that Mr Ghafoor was en route to Istanbul to attend a family wedding.
The Emirati official said the UAE has granted a request by the US embassy to conduct a consular visit and that since the original trial was held in absentia, Mr 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 US consular officials as saying Mr Ghafoor was being held in a detention facility in Abu Dhabi and 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.
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.
Mr Biden said he would raise human rights during his trip to the region which concluded on Saturday.
Biden disputes Saudi account of Khashoggi murder
Answering reporters as he arrived back at the White House later on Saturday, Mr Biden disputed the Saudi Foreign Minister’s account that he did not hear Mr Biden blame Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of Khashoggi.
Asked whether the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, was telling the truth in recounting the exchange between Mr Biden and the crown prince during discussions at a bilateral summit, the President said “No”.
Mr Jubeir said the crown prince, known as MbS, told Mr Biden the kingdom acted to prevent a repeat of mistakes like Khashoggi’s killing and that the United States had also made mistakes.
The minister told Fox News that he “didn’t hear that particular phrase” from Mr Biden blaming the crown prince.
A Saudi official who was present at the meeting said the exchange was not as Mr Biden described and discussion over Khashoggi occurred before the official meeting in “an informal way”.
The official said he did not hear the President telling the crown Prince that he held him responsible for Khashoggi’s killing.
Mr Biden, asked whether he regretted exchanging a first bump with MbS on Friday, replied: “Why don’t you guys talk about something that matters? I’m happy to answer a question that matters.”