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Outrage builds in US over UAE's detention of Jamal Khashoggi's lawyer

Nearly a dozen American lawmakers have called on the US and UAE to address the arrest of Asim Ghafoor, and pressed for his release
By MEE staff in Washington

Calls for the release of an American lawyer detained by the United Arab Emirates last week are growing, as many questions remain unanswered as to what was behind his arrest and whether Washington had a role to play.

Asim Ghafoor was arrested on 14 July by Emirati authorities while transiting through Abu Dhabi on his way to attend a wedding in Istanbul, Turkey.

The rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn), of which Ghafoor is a board member, said the Virginia-based attorney was being held "on what appears to be a politically motivated in absentia conviction".

According to Emirati reports, the UAE arrested Ghafoor on charges related to an in-absentia conviction for money laundering pursuant to evidence.

The UAE had previously described the arrest as one that was coordinated with the US as part of an effort to crack down on "transnational crimes" - a charge denied by the US State Department.

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The State Department, however, declined to answer whether or not the US had requested the UAE to investigate Ghafoor, referring reporters to the Justice Department.

US denies asking for arrest of Jamal Khashoggi lawyer in UAE
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The Justice Department told Middle East Eye that as a matter of policy, it does not discuss any communications with foreign governments.

Muslim groups, rights organisations and a several American lawmakers have come together over the past several days demanding that the US call for Ghafoor's release.

Nearly a dozen US lawmakers, fincluding Ro Khanna, Ilhan Omar and Don Beyer, have issued statements in support of Ghafoor, and demanded his release as well as answers from Abu Dhabi.

Rights groups including Amnesty International and the Project for Middle East Democracy have also called on the Biden administration to urge his release.

Many said the arrest was even more concerning because it came as US President Joe Biden was in the region meeting with countries including the United Arab Emirates.

Matt Duss, Senator Bernie Sanders' foreign policy adviser, tweeted that Americans should "expect much more of this", following Biden's visit.

"The past week provided Middle East's repressive governments with a sense of complete invulnerability," he said.

The US has stated that it is seeking more information from Emirati authorities on the arrest, and has also paid multiple visits to Ghafoor in the Emirates. US officials also attended an 18 July hearing for Ghafoor but did not provide any further details.

An Emirati official told Reuters that since the original trial was held in absentia, Ghafoor is permitted to request a retrial. 

However, the lack of clear confirmation as to whether Washington has ever requested the Emiratis to probe the lawyer has raised concerns as to what role the US has played. Ghafoor has a history of being subject to surveillance at the hands of Washington.

Who is Asim Ghafoor?

Ghafoor is a first-generation American whose Muslim parents emigrated from India and has been practising law in the United States for more than two decades. He also previously served as acting chief of staff to Democratic Congressman Ciro Rodriguez.

Shortly before the 11 September, 2001 attacks, Ghafoor became a civil rights advocate for American Muslims and went on to represent a number of clients accused by the US of terrorism.

His clients included the Haramain Islamic Foundation, a Saudi Arabia-based charity whose US assets were frozen over claims that it funded terrorist operations and had links to al-Qaeda, as well as the government of Sudan.

He, along with several other prominent Muslim Americans, was also subject to a secretive email monitoring campaign by the National Security Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation which sought to target alleged terrorists and spies.

In a 2014 interview with The Intercept, Ghafoor said the US government had mistakenly sent him a log of confidential communications that he had with one of his clients, around the time that he was representing the Haramain foundation.

NSA documents obtained by the investigative news organisation revealed that the US government had been spying on Ghafoor between 2005 and 2008.

Ghafoor also previously represented slain Middle East Eye and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Monday that the US does not believe the arrest is related to his representation of Khashoggi.

The Emirati embassy in Washington did not respond to MEE's request for comment on Ghafoor's arrest and what the exact nature of the charges against him are.

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