x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Fraudsters to face tougher sentences

Experts feel a precedent may be set where semi-governmental company staff will be treated as public officials, not private employees, if prosecuted.

DUBAI // A landmark court ruling yesterday is likely to have implications for all officials charged with fraud in the emirate and may lead to harsher sentences. The Dubai Court of Cassation upheld the conviction of the former chief executive of Sama Dubai's Lagoons project and his sentence of three years in prison for accepting bribes after he was tried as a public official.

Abdel Salam al Merri had previously been tried, and acquitted, as a private employee. Legal experts said the ruling by the emirate's highest appellate court would result in all employees of semi-governmental companies being charged as public officials, not private employees, should they be accused of wrongdoing. "All courts handling new and ongoing cases will have to use this ruling as a precedent and base all their judgments on that," said Eissa bin Haidar, the chief partner of Bin Haidar Advocates and Legal Consultants.

"Public prosecutors now will be able to retract charges and readdress them to court as public officials in related cases." Prosecutors have been pushing for employees implicated in corruption cases to be tried as public officials, which can lead to harsher penalties upon conviction. Defence lawyers have been representing defendants employed at companies such as Dubai Holding and Dubai World as private employees, not public officials.

A private employee convicted of corruption would face between one month and three years in jail whereas a public official would face between three and 15 years. Al Merri, a 42-year-old Emirati, was found guilty by the Dubai Court of Appeals of demanding Dh2.9 million (US$790,000) in assets as bribes and of breach of duty. Yesterday, the Court of Cassation confirmed the lower appeals court verdict after a five-judge panel reviewed its procedures and deemed them accurate.

Al Merri had asked a client for five apartments worth Dh2.7m and Dh200,000 cash. Sentencing him in January, the appeals court also ordered al Merri to pay Dh5.8m in fines and reimbursements after it overturning his previous acquittal on bribery charges. Al Merri was initially found not guilty by the Dubai Criminal Court of First Instance. In November prosecutors asked for him to be retried, claiming he had been acquitted only because he was originally tried as a private employee.

Abdel al Memari, prosecuting, called for al Merri to be tried as a public official on the grounds that Sama Dubai was part of Dubai Holding, which was owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. Had al Merri been tried as a public official, he would have been legally required to declare commissions he received, including the apartments and the cash. Three other former Sama Dubai executives who were convicted in the same case had their jail sentences increased from one to three years at the appeals court. The increases were upheld yesterday.

The three, all Emiratis, were a 41-year-old sales manager, a 23-year-old sales adviser and a 28-year-old executive. They were also ordered to return Dh4.85m between them, which they were found to have taken in bribes, and pay jointly the same amount in fines. They were convicted by the Court of First Instance of illegally selling and reselling land belonging to Sama Dubai after accepting Dh1.35m in bribes.

A Damac employee originally convicted, then acquitted by the appeals court, had his acquittal upheld. The Lagoons project, estimated to cost Dh80 billion, consists of 350 plots in a waterfront area. @Email:amustafa@thenational.ae