An American attorney who represented a murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi was sentenced to three years in prison United Arab Emirates (UAE) after being arrested at an airport surrounded by the President Joe Biden‘s controversial trip to the Middle East.
Asim Ghafoor, a US citizen and Virginia-based civil rights attorney, has been convicted of tax evasion and money laundering in connection with a tax evasion operation in the US, UAE state media WAM reported on Saturday.
The Abu Dhabi Money Laundering Court sentenced him to three years in prison and a fine of three million dirhams (USD 816,748) and deportation from the United Arab Emirates two days after his arrest at Dubai Airport.
State media said his conviction came after US authorities asked their UAE counterparts for legal assistance regarding their investigation into Mr Ghafoor over alleged tax evasion and suspected money transfers to the Middle Eastern country.
The US has not confirmed this version of events.The Independent contacted the US Department of State to verify this account.
The Foreign Office confirmed in a statement on Saturday that it was aware of Mr Ghafoor’s detention. It came as Mr Biden held a meeting with the President of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, to promote ties between the two nations.
“We are aware of the arrest of US citizen Asim Ghafoor in the UAE. We have raised his detention at a high level with the Emirati authorities and requested additional information. We closely monitor his case and provide appropriate consular assistance; Consular officials from the US Embassy visited him today,” a State Department spokesman said.
“We have expressed our expectation that Mr. Ghafoor’s rights to a fair and public hearing and guarantees of a fair trial will be fully respected and that he will be treated humanely, as well as that US rights to consular access will be fully respected.”
Earlier, US officials told reporters there was “no indication that it has anything to do with the Khashoggi issue.”
Mr Ghafoor, who previously represented Mr Khashoggi, was arrested in Dubai on Thursday as he traveled to Istanbul for a family wedding.
Human rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) said he was being held in a detention center in Abu Dhabi on charges of being convicted in absentia of money laundering. Mr Ghafoor reportedly had no prior knowledge of a conviction.
The human rights group, of which Mr Ghafoor is a co-founder and board member, urged Mr Biden to raise the issue at his meeting with the President of the United Arab Emirates in Saudi Arabia on Saturday.
It is unclear whether Mr Ghafoor’s detention was addressed at what appeared to be a friendly meeting between the two leaders. During the meeting, Mr. Biden formally invited his UAE counterpart, who took office in May, to visit the United States this year.
“Challenges you face today only make it that much more important that we spend time together,” Mr. Biden told him. “I would like to officially invite you to the States.”
The Independent has reached out to the White House for comment.
The meeting came as Mr Biden met several Middle East leaders, including the man believed to have ordered the strike on Mr Khashoggi, as part of his four-day trip to the region.
On October 2, 2018, Mr. Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist and outspoken critic of the Saudi government, was assassinated inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Mr Biden met with MBS on Friday during his controversial trip and afterwards told reporters he had confronted the crown prince about his role in the murder. MBS denied any responsibility and fired back at the President with the US controversies.
Saudi officials later claimed they “didn’t hear” Mr Biden bringing up Khashoggi’s death with the crown prince – comments the US president immediately dismissed as untrue.
Mr. Biden’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia and meet MBS has come under fire, especially given Mr. Biden’s comments during his 2020 White House campaign that he would make Saudi Arabia an “outcast.”
The president sparked further backlash when he greeted MBS with a friendly fist bump at the start of their meeting on Friday.