US citizen Asim Ghafoor, the former lawyer of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was sentenced by a court in the United Arab Emirates to three years in prison, state news WAM reported 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 [$US 816,748], with deportation from the UAE,” according to WAM.
Ghafoor, who is also a co-founder and board member of their organization, was detained by UAE security agents at Dubai International Airport, human rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) had said in a Friday news release.
According to WAM, the case came up when American 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.
The US State Department responded to Ghafoor’s sentencing Saturday.
“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.”
DAWN had said they informed the US State Department of his detention on Thursday, when he arrived from the US to Dubai in transit to Istanbul. DAWN said US consular officials met with Ghafoor Friday and said he was being held in Abu Dhabi on charges related to an “in absentia” money laundering conviction, but Ghafoor “had no knowledge of any legal matter against him and no reason to believe he was involved in any legal dispute in the UAE,” according to a Friday news release issued by DAWN.
Ghafoor transited through the Dubai International Airport without incident less than a year ago, according to DAWN.
CNN has reached out to the UAE government for further comment.
“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 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.”
US officials had said earlier Saturday they were “aware” of reports Ghafoor had been detained in the UAE but declined to offer any other details on his arrest.
“I will say there’s no indication that it has anything to do with Khashoggi, or anything else. But we are aware of it,” a senior US administration official said.
When President Joe Biden met with UAE’s President Sheikh Mohammed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, both leaders ignored shouted questions about Khashoggi’s former lawyer. Biden publicly invited the UAE leader to Washington before the end of the year.
Another administration official said the US raised Ghafoor’s detention “at senior levels with Emirati authorities” and “requested additional information” on his situation.
Consular officers from the US Embassy visited with Ghafoor Saturday, the senior US administration official said.
Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and a columnist for the Washington Post who was critical of Saudi rulers, was killed at a consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2018.
The US declassified an intelligence report last year which concluded Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation to capture or kill Khashoggi.
Despite once promising to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the world stage, Biden fist bumped the Crown Prince upon meeting him in Jeddah on Friday – a greeting critics argued validated bin Salman on the world stage and Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan called “shameful.”
Biden told reporters later he raised Khashoggi’s killing directly with Prince bin Salman and said he believed the Crown Prince was responsible.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan told reporters Saturday “The Crown Prince responded to President Biden’s remarks on the Khashoggi affair quite clearly, that this crime while very unfortunate and abhorrent is something that the Kingdom took very seriously, acted upon in a way commensurate with its position as a responsible country. These are issues, mistakes that happen in any country, including the US.”
DAWN is an organization describing itself on its website as “a dedicated group of analysts, researchers, lawyers and activists who aim to fulfill Khashoggi’s vision of helping to promote democracy and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa.”