CAIRO — An American lawyer imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates since mid-July is expected to be released after his sentence was overturned by an Emirati court, reversing a punishment that raised alarm that he was being targeted for political reasons.
The lawyer, Asim Ghafoor, who lives in Virginia and works in Washington, was detained on July 14 at an airport in Dubai while waiting for a flight to Istanbul, where he was to attend a family wedding. The U.A.E. said at the time that Mr. Ghafoor had been convicted in absentia of tax evasion and money laundering after it opened an investigation into him at the request of the United States, though the State Department said the United States had not asked for his arrest.
As pressure from members of Congress and Muslim advocacy groups in the U.S. mounted on U.A.E. authorities to release him, Mr. Ghafoor appealed his conviction at a hearing in Abu Dhabi, the U.A.E. capital, on Tuesday. His three-year prison sentence was then overturned, though his conviction stands, said Aziza Ansari, a relative of Mr. Ghafoor.
Mr. Ghafoor still faces a fine of $1.36 million and deportation, according to a statement from Abu Dhabi’s Judicial Department, which said a court had confiscated from Mr. Ghafoor’s account a sum of money he had transferred illegally through the U.A.E.
It is not clear when he will be released.
The son of Indian immigrants, Mr. Ghafoor has for much of his career represented Muslim Americans in civil rights cases, work for which he was surveilled by the U.S. government.
He eventually came to work with Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi columnist for The Washington Post whose gruesome murder by Saudi agents in 2018 focused world condemnation on Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman. Mr. Ghafoor worked on Mr. Khashoggi’s immigration case after the Saudi dissident moved to the United States, according to Mr. Ghafoor’s lawyer.
Mr. Ghafoor also helped Mr. Khashoggi found Democracy for the Arab World Now, a Washington-based advocacy group that has criticized the U.A.E. — a close ally of Saudi Arabia — over its record of prosecuting and imprisoning dissidents. Mr. Ghafoor now sits on the group’s board. But the State Department has said there was no indication that his arrest is connected to his work with Mr. Khashoggi.
The U.A.E. has insisted the case was purely about money laundering. In a statement on Monday, the Emirati Embassy in Washington said Emirati authorities had begun investigating Mr. Ghafoor in 2020 after “receiving an official request” for “mutual legal assistance related to an ongoing probe of Mr. Ghafoor by U.S. authorities” from the American Embassy in Abu Dhabi on behalf of American law-enforcement agencies, including the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service.
The Department of Justice declined to comment.
The embassy statement said the Emirati investigation had found that Mr. Ghafoor had laundered at least $4.9 million through the Emirati banking system, transferring the money through multiple bank accounts that “he opened with the intent to conceal the origin of the funds from tax authorities.” An unidentified person using Mr. Ghafoor’s bank cards had made dozens of transactions on his accounts through Emirati A.T.M.s, the statement said.
“The case reflects expanded U.A.E. and U.S. legal cooperation to combat transnational financial crimes,” the embassy statement said, noting that President Biden, who met U.A.E. President Mohammed bin Zayed at a summit in Saudi Arabia two days after Mr. Ghafoor’s arrest, had remarked on the country’s efforts to combat financial crimes.
Mr. Ghafoor’s supporters have questioned the Emirati version of events, noting that Emirati authorities never informed him of the case against him, tried and convicted him without his knowledge and presence, and did not give him an opportunity to defend himself before he was sentenced.
Nada Rashwan contributed reporting.