x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Dh14.4bn fraud man stages hunger strike

Accused man has spent eight months in prison as trial is continually delayed by absent witnesses and judges who stepped down.

ABU DHABI // A man accused of being part of an attempted Dh14.4 billion fraud has gone on hunger strike in protest at being held in jail for eight months without his defence being heard.

N A, a naturalised American of Iranian descent, appeared yesterday before the Abu Dhabi Criminal Court of First Instance charged with abetting in trying to defraud the Central Bank, and forgery.

Prosecutors said he went along with I K, an Iranian, to withdraw money from the bank on Bainuna Street in April.

I K denied attempting to withdraw the money, saying he went only to check if documents he received from another person were real. N A said he was merely serving as a translator.

The two have been in prison since April and were put on trial in June.

The justices presiding over the case were expected to issue a verdict on November 22, but stepped down from the case because of "untruthful" media reports that they said would influence their decision.

As a result, the case resumed last week under a new panel of judges. Both men pleaded not guilty, but have not yet presented their defence.

Several witnesses from Dubai were scheduled to give their evidence yesterday, but could not attend because of unspecified "certain circumstances", forcing the case to be adjourned until Tuesday.

The two accused men nonetheless wanted to present their case, but the chief justice, Abdulhafiz Zidan, said they needed to wait until the witnesses were present.

N A's lawyer, Mahmoud al Azma, complained that his client had been in prison for eight months and had asked for bail.

"His wife and son are here in the courtroom and they would like to celebrate the New Year with him," Mr al Azma said.

"The case has been adjourned too many times and he has been in prison for more than eight months."

The chief justice declined, joking that N A was Muslim and did not need to celebrate Christmas or the New Year.

After the chief justice adjourned the case, he spoke to N A's wife to hear her appeal to free her husband on bail. She told him her husband had decided to go on hunger strike.

Outside court, she said her husband would not eat until the court decided to hear his defence. She said it had not provided any good reason for refusing bail.

"My husband is very serious and he would not eat anything," the wife said. So far, she said, her husband appeared before the court 13 times without a chance to present his defence.

It is not N A's first protest about the drawn-out proceedings. When Saeed Abdul Baseer, the chief justice, announced he was abandoning the case, N A screamed in the courtroom: "I have been in prison for seven months and no one has allowed me to say anything. No one asked me anything. They do not have any evidence against me, nothing."

After that outburst, a prison guard asked him to go back to the detention room and he said: "Yalla yalla, everyone is saying yalla yalla and I am still here in prison."

In previous hearings, I K claimed he had been the victim of a fraud, not its perpetrator. He said he had been approached by an investor who claimed he could help him to finance a tourist village.

The investor claimed to be a middleman for a Somali. The funds from the Central Bank were to be used for IK's project, while the middleman would collect 1 per cent as a personal bonus.

However, the Central Bank does not hold private funds, dealing only with other banks.