U.S. officials attended detained American's UAE hearing

WASHINGTON, Aug 9 (Reuters) - U.S. embassy officials attended a hearing in the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday for detained U.S. citizen and rights lawyer Asim Ghafoor, a State Department official said.

UAE authorities have said Virginia-based Ghafoor was arrested last month while transiting Dubai airport. He was tried in absentia and convicted in May for tax evasion and money laundering. Ghafoor was handed a three-year prison term and a fine of 3 million dirhams ($816,000), a UAE official had said.

The UAE embassy in Washington said on Monday the Emirati investigation into Ghafoor's activities began in 2020 on a request for assistance from the U.S. mission in Abu Dhabi on behalf of the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service in a U.S. probe.

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Washington has not confirmed that the probe was initiated at its request.

"They arrested him based on their own initiative, information and authorities," a senior administration official said.

Rights groups have said Ghafoor was targeted because of his ties to the late Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed by Saudi agents in 2018 at the kingdom's Istanbul consulate in an operation that U.S. intelligence says Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved. The prince has denied involvement.

The State Department has said it had seen no indication that the detention was linked to Ghafoor's ties with Khashoggi. read more The UAE and Saudi Arabia are close allies.

On Tuesday the State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington was watching Ghafoor's case closely and providing consular support. He said U.S. officials had also observed his previous hearings on July 18 and Aug. 1, which were held virtually.

"Consular officers from the U.S. Embassy have visited him seven times, including joining him for trial proceedings, most recently on August 9," the official said.

Another hearing was scheduled for Wednesday, the official said.

The UAE statement on Monday said the UAE and the United States had been sharing information on Ghafoor's case for more than two years as part of what it described as "intensified cooperation to combat transitional money-laundering and illicit finance."

The State Department official said Washington has seen UAE's statement but had nothing further to add.

The Department of Justice declined to comment.

According to Ghafoor's website he helped Khashoggi incorporate U.S.-based rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) in 2018 and is a member of its board. DAWN has called for his immediate release, saying his conviction was obtained without due process.

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Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Grant McCool

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