DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The United Arab Emirates on Wednesday overturned a three-year prison sentence for an American citizen who had represented slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, one of his lawyers and the Emirati judicial department said.
Instead, Virginia-based lawyer Asim Ghafoor, a U.S. citizen, was punished with a fine of $1.36 million and deportation. Ghafoor had been convicted in absentia in the UAE on murky charges that included money laundering and tax evasion.
Authorities have not released specifics about the case, saying only that it involved illegal money transfers through the UAE banking system.
Last month, Ghafoor's supporters say Emirati security agents arrested him upon landing at Dubai International Airport and sent him to a detention facility in Abu Dhabi, where he was sentenced to three years in prison followed by deportation.
Ghafoor's lawyer spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to disrupt the proceedings as his client was still in the UAE. He said Ghafoor was ordered to pay the $1.36 million fine before he could leave the country.
Abu Dhabi’s Judicial Department confirmed that a court had tossed out Ghafoor's prison sentence. But it said it upheld the conviction, imposed the fine and confiscated from his account a sum of money it alleged Ghafoor had transferred through the country illegally. The UAE had previously accused Ghafoor of moving $4.9 million through Emirati banks.
The U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi did not respond to request for comment.
Ghafoor had been transiting through Dubai en route to Istanbul for a family wedding. His supporters say he had no idea the UAE had convicted him at some point in the past.
Emirati authorities claim they had investigated Ghafoor at the request of the United States. The State Department, however, said Washington had not ordered Ghafoor’s detention. The Justice Department has declined to comment.
Ghafoor’s lawyer rejected the charges of tax evasion and illegal money transfers. His supporters insist he had no opportunity to defend himself against the charges and describe his trial and conviction as unjust.
Ghafoor serves on the board of Washington-based human rights watchdog Democracy for the Arab World Now, DAWN, which is highly critical of human rights abuses in the autocratic UAE.
Ghafoor’s connection to Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist who was killed and dismembered by Saudi agents in Turkey in 2018, has raised the profile of the case. However, the State Department said there was no indication Ghafoor’s detention was related to his association with Khashoggi.
Many foreigners have landed in prison in the UAE after falling foul of the federation’s strict legal system based on Islamic law. Even the smallest debts can lead to years in prison. The federation of seven sheikhdoms also outlaws political parties.