The United Arab Emirates arrested Asim Ghafoor, a U.S. citizen and former lawyer for slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, on charges of money laundering and tax evasion last week. The arrest stemmed from a U.S. request for “judicial assistance” in Ghafoor’s case and was part of bilateral “coordination to combat transnational crimes,” according to Emirati officials.
But the exact nature of this “coordination” remains unclear, leading observers to question whether and to what extent the United States was involved in Ghafoor’s detention.
A National Security Council spokesperson told Responsible Statecraft that the United States “has not sought the arrest” of Ghafoor but did not comment on whether American officials asked the UAE to open an investigation into his finances. The Department of Justice refused to weigh in on the story, citing a policy of not sharing any information “on communications with foreign governments on investigative matters, including confirming or denying the very existence of such communications.”
Ghafoor previously represented Khashoggi and his fiancée Hatice Cengiz and currently serves on the board of DAWN, an organization founded by Khashoggi that aims to promote democracy and protect human rights in the Arab world. He has also worked on a number of major national security- and foreign policy-related legal cases, according to DAWN.
His arrest came just a day before President Joe Biden met with UAE President Muhammad Bin Zayed (MBZ) in Jeddah during a trip to the Middle East. A U.S. readout from the meeting made no mention of Ghafoor but did congratulate MBZ on his recent election as president, earning consternation from observers who pointed out that he was installed in the position by a small, unelected group of Emirati leaders.
The arrest came as a surprise to Ghafoor, who denied the charges and said he had traveled through Dubai without issue in the past year.
U.S. officials contended that Ghafoor’s detention is not related to Khashoggi, but his colleagues at DAWN believe the move was “politically motivated.”
“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,” said DAWN executive director Sarah Leah Whitson in a press release.
The news also earned a rebuke from Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who connected Biden’s softened position on Middle East autocracies to the arrest. “Expect much more of this,” Duss tweeted. “The past week provided [the] Middle East's repressive governments with a sense of complete invulnerability.”
UAE courts originally convicted Ghafoor in absentia, sentencing him to serve three years in prison and pay a fine of more than $800,000. Emirati officials say that his request for a retrial has been granted and that “relevant legal proceedings are underway.”
But many worry that Ghafoor will not receive a fair trial in a system that the State Department has accused of detaining people for political reasons and treating foreigners differently from citizens.
“Even if there was some kind of an investigation, to detain him and convict him in absentia for absolutely no reason just really shows the total absence of any due process in the UAE,” Whitson said in an interview on MSNBC.