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US denies asking for arrest of Jamal Khashoggi lawyer in UAE

Asim Ghafoor was sentenced to three years in jail on alleged money laundering and tax evasion charges

The US has denied a claim by officials in the United Arab Emirates that it asked for the arrest of the lawyer who represented murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Asim Ghafoor, who also sits on the board of US-based rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn), was arrested on Thursday at Dubai airport en route to Istanbul to attend a family wedding and later convicted.

The rights group has described the Virginia-based attorney's arrest as being based "on what appears to be a politically motivated in absentia conviction".

On Monday, an Emirati court rejected Ghafoor’s request to be released on bail while he appeals his alleged conviction on charges of money laundering and tax evasion, his lawyer Faisal Gill told Associated Press.

The UAE had previously described the arrest as coordinated with the US as part of an effort to crack down on "transnational crimes", and said the Americans had requested help with an investigation into the lawyer.

In a statement on Monday, however, the US State Department disputed this and said the administration had "not sought the arrest of Mr Ghafoor".

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.

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.

'Politically motivated revenge'

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.

"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.

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"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."

Asked by reporters about the detention last week, a senior US administration official 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 Mohammed 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".

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 based on sweeping charges.

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