Dubai’s debt detainees to prompt sanctions application for senior UAE official

In light of alleged human rights abuses in the separate cases of Ryan Cornelius and Zack Shahin in the United Arab Emirates, barristers are set to file an application for sanctions in UK and US courts this month against a senior UAE government official, said Rhys Davies, a Barrister at Temple Garden Chambers.

The submission for sanctions will be jointly filed by Davies as well as Ben Keith, a Barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill, he went on to say. Together, both Davies and Keith have set up International Human Rights Advisors.

Davies is representing both Ryan Cornelius and Zack Shahin as their barrister.

The exact identity of the individual they are seeking to apply sanctions against cannot yet be disclosed, said Davies.

It is hoped that the sanctions would include an asset freeze, travel restrictions and would also apply to relatives of the individual, said Davies. “This would especially be substantial for the US element of sanctions, given the reach of their financial institutions,” added Davies.

Often universal jurisdiction is applied too in these sorts of cases, as was seen in Paris when one of the murderers of journalist Jamal Khasoggi was arrested last month, said Davies.

"The basis of these sanctions comes after the Bill Browder case and the Magnitsky Act. It was enacted to stop Russian kleptocrats and officials committing crimes and then flying to Knightsbridge and Manhattan as if nothing happened," said Davies.

Whether the sanctions will be granted is another issue, however. “Look at Princess Latifa for example, sanctions were filed but don’t yet seem to have gone anywhere,” Davies said.

The decision to grant sanctions would heavily be a political one, and since the UK has enjoyed close economic ties, as well as military and intelligence cooperation with the UAE, this may be difficult, said one source familiar.

Despite sanctions being imposed on a number of Saudis accused of killing Jamal Khashogi for example, the British government reportedly called Saudi Arabia a day after they were imposed to praise the kingdom.

Last month the UAE established its National Human Rights Institute in a bid to clear up its image. But it is unlikely to help sway the case in favour of Cornelius or Shahin, said Davies.

"I don't think that the new UAE Human Rights Institution in the UAE will make any difference to proceedings,” said Davies. In the context of the UAE, such an institution would lack the power or will to drive real change, Davies added.

Detained in Dubai

Ryan Cornelius had been arrested in 2008 following suspected fraud against Dubai Islamic Bank (DIB), the Emirate’s second largest lender. Despite having been originally sentenced to three years in prison, Cornelius remains locked up after some 13 years behind bars. His sentence has been extended twice.

Cornelius was found guilty of fraud in 2011 related to a USD 501m loan from DIB and was sentenced to 10 years in jail, given a USD 500m fine and ordered to repay the loan. The judge accepted the bank’s claim that USD 342m of the USD 500m lent by DIB had been used for unauthorised projects.

DIB had provided credit for short-term needs, but it was instead used to fund unauthorised longer-term projects such as a site named “The Plantation”, which was a site aiming to build a 200-room hotel, 110 luxury villas and had equestrian facilities in Dubai.

“To pull this off, Cornelius’s business forged invoices for items such as furniture and building materials to match the investment capital being funnelled to the Plantation. A later civil case, brought by DIB in Britain, concluded that Cornelius was “fully implicated” in the creation of fabricated invoices to perpetrate a fraud,” according to a report in The Economist report went on to say.

Despite their fraud, during the original trial Cornelius and his associates had argued that they restructured the DIB loan in 2007 and were making repayments on schedule until their arrest in 2008.

The restructuring had occurred when Mohammed Kharbash was chairman of DIB though, who was at the centre of a government crackdown on corruption a decade ago. Kharbash left DIB in early 2008, a few months before Cornelius’s arrest.

DIB had argued during the original trial, with Mohammed al-Shaibani as the new Chairman, that the restructuring of the loan was illegal. When Shaibani was installed at DIB chairman, his remit was to “clean the stables”, and Kharbash was charged with embezzlement in 2009.

In 2018, DIB brought proceedings to recover the loan, using Law 37 to extend the Cornelius and his co-defendants sentences for failing to repay “illicit money”. They have remained in prison ever since.

Meanwhile, Zack Shahin, who had run the property arm of DIB, was accused of stealing USD 30m in 2008, though no money could be traced to him. Despite reportedly fleeing to Yemen, Shahin had been met by security agents from Dubai who had free reign in the country and forced him back to Dubai where he still remains in prison.

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