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UAE lifts prison term for American convicted of money laundering

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The anti-money laundering and tax evasion court in Abu Dhabi ordered Asim Ghafoor to be deported, who was detained in Dubai last month

A United Arab Emirates court has lifted a prison sentence but upheld a conviction on money laundering charges for US citizen and civil rights attorney Asim Ghafoor, who was detained while transiting through Dubai last month, the Judicial Department and a lawyer for Ghafoor said on Wednesday.

The court ordered Ghafoor to pay AED 5 million ($1.36 million) fine and for AED 18 million in his account to be confiscated. But it removed a three-year jail term from an earlier sentence handed down in absentia in May, lawyer Habib Al Mulla told Reuters.

The anti-money laundering and tax evasion court in Abu Dhabi also ordered Ghafoor to be deported, the emirate’s Judicial Department said in a statement posted on its Twitter account. It confirmed the jail term had been removed and that Ghafoor faced the fine and confiscation of his funds.

The lawyer did not say whether Ghafoor, who is based in Virginia, had been released. The US Embassy in Abu Dhabi did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.

Ghafoor, who helped set up a human rights group with slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, had been detained at Dubai International Airport based on the absentia court conviction, following an investigation that the UAE said was launched in 2020 based on a request for assistance from US authorities.

The UAE Embassy in Washington said on Monday the Emirati investigation had determined Ghafoor had committed tax evasion and money laundering by moving at least $4.9 million in international transfers through the UAE banking system.

The in-absentia trial and his detention on July 14 while US President Joe Biden was visiting the region had drawn criticism from rights groups and some members of Congress.

The United States has not confirmed it requested the Emirati probe and said Ghafoor was not detained at Washington’s request.

Ghafoor’s supporters have said he was not aware of the charges, with some US lawmakers suggesting the arrest might be political and mentioning his ties to Khashoggi, who was murdered by Saudi agents in Turkey in 2018.

UAE authorities have consistently described the case as strictly one of financial crimes. They did not immediately respond to a request from Reuters on Tuesday for comment on the accusation Ghafoor’s links to Khashoggi may have been a factor.

US intelligence says Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation in which Khashoggi was killed. The prince has denied involvement. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are close allies.

According to Ghafoor’s website, Ghafoor helped Khashoggi incorporate US-based rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) in 2018 and is a member of its board.

DAWN had called for his immediate release, saying the May conviction was obtained without due process, a criticism that has been taken up by members of the US Congress.

The UAE Embassy said Ghafoor has received due process since his arrest, local legal counsel and regular contact with his family and with US consular officials.