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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 March 2019

Woman, 60, jailed in UAE ‘is the real fraud victim’

German woman, 60, fears she may spend the rest of her life in prison for a crime she says he did not commit
John Schneider-Merck, of Help for Germans in Foreign Lands, has called for the release of Brigitte Scholz. Christopher Pike / The National
John Schneider-Merck, of Help for Germans in Foreign Lands, has called for the release of Brigitte Scholz. Christopher Pike / The National

ABU DHABI // A woman caught up in a sophisticated cyber fraud fears she may spend the rest of her life in jail for a crime she insists she did not commit.

Brigitte Scholz, 60, a German expatriate, was sentenced at Al Ain Criminal Court in February 2014 to three months in prison for stealing $180,000 (Dh661,000) from Zakwan El Hakawati, a Syrian businessman.

Judicial authorities say she must remain in jail until she repays the money. Since Mrs Scholz has no financial resources and no access to funds, she will never be able to do so.

“She is the victim here,” said her friend Ingvild Moritsch, who is campaigning for Mrs Scholz’s release. “She can’t pay this ­money back because she doesn’t have it.”

Mrs Scholz has lived in the UAE since 2012, when she set up a small trading company. She was introduced to a Nigerian who claimed to be an “international businessman”. It was then that her problems began.

“They became close friends and he asked her if he could use her bank account because he was expecting a large money transfer but didn’t have the time to open a UAE bank account.

“Brigitte, being naive, gave him her account number,” Ms  Moritsch said.

In due course, the sum of $180,000 was deposited in Mrs Scholz’s account. As agreed, she withdrew the money and gave it to her Nigerian “friend”. She never saw him again.

Meanwhile, Mr Hakawati, the Syrian businessman, and his brother, who is also his business partner, were negotiating with a company in South Korea over an order worth $180,000.

Unknown to them, computer hackers in Nigeria had accessed Mr Hakawati’s email account and found details of the business deal. Posing as the Korean company, they emailed Mr Hakawati asking him to make the $180,000 payment into a UAE bank account – and gave him Mrs Scholz’s account number.

The merchandise, of course, never arrived, because the Korean company had not been paid. When Mr Hakawati realised he was the victim of cyber crime, he alerted the police. They traced the money to Mrs Scholz’s account and arrested her. She has been in Al Ain prison ever since.

In addition to a jail sentence, she was ordered to be deported if she is ever released, and there is also a travel ban in place, at Mr Hakawati’s request.

If she had been convicted before 2008, Mrs Scholz would have spent no more than three years in prison. But a special judiciary committee set up to review cases of debtors with a travel ban and deportation changed this system because it was subject to abuse.

“Many con artists used to calculate that it was a good deal for them – steal millions of dirhams and spend only three years in jail,” a legal consultant said. “They got out of prison millionaires. This committee put a stop to that. It can decide that a person is to remain in prison for as long as they see fit.”

A debtor such as Mrs Scholz has three options, the consultant said. “Ask for clemency, ask that the travel ban be lifted by convincing the claimant to pardon them, or prove beyond doubt that they cannot repay the money.”

Ultimately it is up to the committee to decide how long a debtor spends in jail, he said. “The aim is not to incarcerate, which costs the Government Dh500 a day. The aim is to stop fraud and secure the rights of the victim. The Government will not arrest a debtor who proves that they cannot repay the amount.”

In an email to Mr Hakawati, the German embassy confirmed that Mrs Scholz has no funds. She “has neither financial means of her own nor any members of the family or friends who would be in position to support her financially”, the embassy said.

“The only income granted to her by the German social welfare authorities is limited to cover her personal expenses with the detention. The only possibility for her to arrange her personal affairs, including her endeavours to find a solution regarding her due amount of money, is her conditional release from prison.”

Despite her obvious inability to repay Mr Hakawati, there is no indication that Mrs Scholz will be released. “We met officals at the Abu Dhabi judicial department who said that Brigitte will remain for the rest of her life in jail unless she receives a pardon. I haven’t stopped crying since then,” Ms Moritsch said.

John Schneider-Merck, head of Help for Germans in Foreign Lands, described the situation as ridiculous. “This is an old woman who has no family here – no husband or any children and she’s already served a three-year sentence. What use is it to keep her in jail if she can’t pay the money back?

“This poor woman will die in prison. Where is the mercy?”

He and Ms Moritsch are drafting letters to send to the Leadership asking that Mrs Scholz be granted a pardon.

“They can keep a travel ban on her, but release her from jail so she can file a case against the Nigerian and help get the money back,” Ms Moritsch said.

“What is the point in keeping her in jail? It’s to no one’s benefit. The Syrian will never get his money back and Brigitte is suffering.

“People are in jail and they cannot pay, but even if they are out on bail or with a travel ban they cannot obtain a legal status based on which they could find employment or start a business, so they cannot generate the funds needed to clear the cases.”

Mr Hakawati said the matter was in the hands of his lawyer. “I don’t know if she is innocent or not,” he said.

“The police traced it back to the owner of the account number. I want my money back. I’ve put this in God’s hands and asked my lawyer to deal with it.”

salnuwais@thenational.ae

Updated: January 28, 2017 04:00 AM

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