x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Five drug traffickers lose appeal

Five convicted drug smugglers wanted by international law enforcers for trafficking and money laundering have failed in their appeal against their 25-year prison sentences.

ABU DHABI // Five convicted drug smugglers wanted by international law enforcers for trafficking and money laundering have failed in their appeal against their 25-year prison sentences in this country. The men were convicted of having operated a complex web of bogus businesses and front companies to help move significant quantities of hashish from Pakistan to Europe.

They were arrested in 2006 in a police operation coined Octopus, when 2,500kg of hashish was discovered wrapped in towels in a crate at a port in Belgium on February 2. Shahbaz Khan, 62, and Amir Azam, 38, were described by authorities as the masterminds behind the operation, which netted millions of dollars. Khan, a Pakistani businessman who came to the UAE in 1996 and purchased the one-star City Hotel in Sharjah, was one of 19 men arrested after the drug shipment was intercepted in Antwerp, Belgium.

According to the US Treasury, Khan operated a "criminal and financial network" overseeing operations in six countries. A 2007 White House statement called him a "kingpin" and his assets were frozen. Court documents show Khan set up shell companies in Dubai and Sharjah free zones. Among them was Shahbaz Khan for General Trading Company, which, according to the charges, he used to facilitate drug trafficking. His lawyer claimed Khan had no ties to the other men arrested and was not connected to the operation. Khan said he simply sent his earnings from businesses in the UAE to his bank accounts in Pakistan, but federal prosecutors say this money was laundered.

The defence attorney told the court previously: "There is no confirmation of Belgian authorities giving evidence of drugs linked to my client." The British, Pakistan and Belgian embassies declined to comment. A British official, who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Amir Azam, a naturalised British citizen, had been a high-value target in the UK before his arrest in 2006. During his time in Dubai, he set up several companies, including car showrooms, court records say. He is accused of facilitating everything from logistics to the financing of the operations. He also claims to be innocent.

Another defendant, Mohammed Shakour Rand, was an officer at the Karachi Port who, according to court documents, facilitated the movements of the drugs. In exchange for his assistance, he was paid Dh200,000 (US$54,500) per shipment, the documents say. He was arrested during one of his visits to the UAE, when he was said to be scouting for potential transit points, and sentenced in 2007 to 15 years.

Another defendant was an Emirati business partner of Khan's. Tom Michielsen, 35, from Belgium, was in charge of ensuring that the crates arrived safely in his country, and that others went on to the Netherlands and Britain. He was arrested on one of his visits to the UAE and is serving a 10-year sentence in Sharjah. Most of the 19 men received separate trials. Some of these trials are ongoing, which prohibits The National from identifying them.

The verdict yesterday by the Federal Appeal Court is a final decision for the five men involved in that case.