US disputes UAE's explanation of Khashoggi lawyer arrest

The United States says it hasn't sought the arrest of the former lawyer of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, contradicting the United Arab Emirates’ official explanation for his detention

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The United States on Monday said it had not sought the arrest of the former lawyer of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, contradicting the United Arab Emirates' official explanation for the American citizen's detention.

The UAE on Saturday sentenced the civil rights lawyer, U.S. citizen Asim Ghafoor, to three years in prison followed by deportation on charges of money laundering and tax evasion. Ghafoor has rejected the accusations and said he had no idea he had been convicted on the charges at some point in the past, in absentia.

Policemen arrested him from Dubai airport on Thursday as he was transiting to Istanbul for a wedding and took him to an Abu Dhabi detention center. An Emirati court rejected Ghafoor's request to be released on bail Monday as he seeks to appeal his conviction, said his lawyer, Faisal Gill.

The UAE portrayed Ghafoor’s arrest as a coordinated move with the U.S. to “combat transnational crimes," saying American authorities had requested Emirati help with an investigation into Ghafoor’s alleged tax evasion and suspicious money transfers in the autocratic country.

But the U.S. disputed that account, with the State Department saying it has “not sought the arrest of Mr. Ghafoor."

“The Emiratis have spoken to their rationale for the detention,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington. “We have requested additional information from our Emirati partners and we’re watching this case closely."

Ghafoor sits on the board of Washington-based human rights watchdog Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, and was a close friend of Khashoggi, the dissident writer and Washington Post columnist dismembered by Saudi agents in Istanbul in 2018. He previously represented Khashoggi as well as his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz.

DAWN focuses on human rights violations in Gulf Arab autocracies including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where dissent is outlawed.

Price said the State Department has “seen no indication at this point that his detention has anything to do with his association with Jamal Khashoggi,” but cautioned the U.S. was “still gathering information.”

He referred reporters to Emirati authorities to speak to the basis of the still-murky charges against Ghafoor. 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 Justice Department declined to comment.

Price added that the U.S. has raised Ghafoor's detention “with senior levels of the Emirati government” and provided consular support, with American officials visiting Ghafoor most recently on Sunday and attending his virtual hearing on Monday.

“We have conveyed our expectations to our Emirati partners that Mr. Ghafoor receive continued consular access, that he’d be afforded a fair and transparent legal process, and that he’d be treated humanely," Price said.

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Associated Press writer Matt Lee in Washington contributed.