The US president met with the UAE’s leader despite being urged by rights group to cancel the meeting.
Abu Dhabi Criminal Court sentenced the ex-lawyer of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi to three years over alleged “crimes of money laundering and tax evasion”, the UAE’s press agency (WAM) reported on Sunday.
The Emirati court accused American lawyer Asim Ghafoor “of committing two crimes of tax evasion and money laundering related to a tax evasion operation in his country”.
Ghafoor, who was taken into custody by UAE security agents on Thursday, is also facing deportation from the country and a hefty AED 3 million fine.
“The case arose upon the American authorities’ request for judicial assistance regarding their investigations of the accused for tax evasion and making suspicious money transfers to the state,” reported WAM.
Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) revealed on Friday that the civil rights attorney was arrested by UAE agents in plainclothes during his transit to Istanbul to attend a family wedding.
DAWN described the detainment of its board member as a “politically motivated in absentia” conviction. Ghafoor was a close friend of Khashoggi as well as the lawyer of the slain journalist’s fiancé Hatice Cengiz.
“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,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of DAWN.
According to DAWN, Ghafoor was not granted his right to defend himself and insisted that he had no knowledge of any legal matter against him. The lawyer faced no such issues less than a year ago when he transitted through the Dubai International Airport.
“Whatever trumped up legal pretext the UAE has cooked up for detaining Ghafoor, it smacks of politically motivated revenge for his association with Khashoggi and DAWN, which has highlighted UAE human rights abuses and urged an end to arms sales to the country,” added Whitson.
At the time of his arrest, the rights group demanded the release of Ghafoor while urging US President Joe Biden to cancel his meeting in Saudi Arabia with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MbZ).
Despite this, Biden met with MbZ and invited him to visit Washington. DAWN had also informed the State Department about Ghafoor’s detention two days ahead of the meeting.
The arrest of Ghafoor has highlighted the UAE’s record as one of the world’s biggest abusers of the Interpol system, “misusing the system’s Red Notices to stop and arrest its critics throughout the world”.
In November last year, Emirati Inspector General Ahmed Nasser Al-Raisi was named as the police agency’s president. Al-Raisi is notoriously known for torturing detainees in the UAE and his election has placed the global policy agency’s credibility into question, as rights groups said.
“A sad day for human rights and the rule of law worldwide, when a representative of arguably the most authoritarian government in the Gulf, one that equates peaceful dissent with terrorism, is elected to head the only police organization that spans the entire globe,” tweeted Hiba Zayadin, Gulf Researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), on 25 November.
Biden’s human rights ‘priority’
The US president came under fire in the leadup of his Middle East visit for meeting with officials with a disturbing human rights record, including Saudi Crown Prime Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MbS.
Various investigations, including one by the CIA, concluded de-facto Saudi leader MbS ordered the horrific killing of the dissident back in 2018. Separately, a 2019 UN investigation concluded that the crime was a “premeditated extrajudicial execution”.
Despite being heavily critical of Saudi Arabia’s killing of the dissident, Biden’s meeting with MbS suggested that the president backtracked on his stance.
In a heated press briefing, Biden told journalists in Jeddah that the matter was a top concern during his meeting with the Saudi official.
“[MbS] said he was not personally responsible for it. I indicated that he probably was. He said he was not personally responsible for it and he took action against those who were responsible,” Biden told the press in Saudi Arabia on Friday.
Khashoggi’s fiancée wrote in an imagined tweet by her late partner that the blood of MbS’s next victim is on Biden’s hands. Responding to a question about Cengiz’s statement, Biden said “I’m sorry she feels that way.”
He was also asked about being sure Saudi Arabia will not commit another murder of a dissident.
“How could I possibly be sure of any of that? I just made it clear if anything occurs like that again, they’ll get that response and much more,” said Biden.