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UAE detains US lawyer who represented Khashoggi, rights group says

Dawn says the UAE detained its board member Asim Ghafoor on politically motivated in absentia conviction
Asim Ghafoor is a Dawn board member and a US civil rights attorney who previously served as a lawyer to slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi (Dawn)
Asim Ghafoor is a Dawn board member and a US civil rights attorney who previously served as a lawyer to slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi (Dawn)

United Arab Emirates security agents have detained US citizen and civil rights attorney Asim Ghafoor, who previously served as a lawyer for slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, said US-based rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn), of which Ghafoor is a member.

Dawn said in a statement on Friday that Ghafoor, who sits on the group's board of directors, was arrested on Thursday at Dubai airport en route to Istanbul to attend a family wedding.

The rights group said the Virginia-based attorney is being held "on what appears to be a politically motivated in absentia conviction".

"Detaining Ghafoor on the basis of an in absentia conviction without providing him any information, notice, or opportunity to defend himself against is a flagrant violation of his due process rights," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Dawn's executive director.

"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."

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A senior US administration official, when asked by reporters about the detention, said the United States was aware of it but could not say whether President Joe Biden planned to raise the issue in bilateral talks with  UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed on the sidelines of an Arab summit in Saudi Arabia.

"Certainly I think we have points on that about the importance of consular access and everything else," the official said, according to Reuters, adding "there's no indication that it has anything to do with the Khashoggi issue".

Saudi journalist Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents in 2018 at the kingdom's Istanbul consulate in an operation that US intelligence says was approved by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The prince has repeatedly denied involvement.

Lost contact

According to Dawn, Ghafoor, who had also acted as a lawyer to Khashoggi's fiancee, Hatic Cengiz, sent a text message early on Thursday saying that two plainclothes UAE security agents had approached him at the airport while he waited for his flight.

The security agents told Ghafoor they needed to take him to Abu Dhabi "to clear a case against him".

He was then transported to the capital in a police wagon, Dawn said, adding that it had lost contact with him after he sent a photo of himself in the vehicle.

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The rights group urged the Biden administration to secure Ghafoor's release, adding that a senior State Department official had given an assurance that they were working to resolve the matter. 

It cited US consular officials, who say they have met the civil rights attorney following his detention, as confirming that Ghafoor is being held in a Criminal Investigative Division detention facility in Abu Dhabi on charges related to an in absentia conviction for money laundering

Ghafoor stated he had no knowledge of any legal matter against him, Dawn said.

Biden has said he would raise human rights during his trip to Saudi Arabia, in which he met the UAE president.

Rights groups say the UAE has jailed hundreds of activists, academics and lawyers in unfair trials on broad charges.

The UAE has rejected such accusations as baseless and says it is committed to human rights under the country's charters.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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