Biden Ripped for $1 Billion UAE Arms Deal Days After Khashoggi Lawyer Sentenced

Progressives this week decried the Biden administration’s approval of a nearly $1 billion weapons support deal with the United Arab Emirates – a move that came days after an Abu Dhabi court controversially sentenced a Virginia civil rights lawyer to three years in prison.

The U.S. State Department’s approval of the $980.4 million agreement for “upgrades and sustainment” of the UAE’s fleet of Boeing C-17 Globemaster III military transport planes was announced Tuesday, two days after the Abu Dhabi Criminal Court sentenced Asim Ghafoor to three years behind bars, a fine of over $816,000, and deportation upon completion of his sentence for alleged money laundering and tax evasion.

Ghafoor, a US citizen who previously represented murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, was arrested Thursday at Dubai International Airport while en route to Turkey to attend a family wedding, the group Democracy in the Arab World Now (DAWN) – on whose board Ghafoor serves – said Friday.

The U.S.-UAE deal was announced days after Biden met with and praised leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, countries accused of perpetrating human rights violations ranging from war crimes and apartheid to the killing, and persecution of US citizens.

“It’s clear that Biden isn’t breaking with Trump on the Mideast,” MSNBC journalist Mehdi Hasan tweeted Tuesday, a reference to then-President Donald Trump’s embrace of Arab dictators and unconditional support for Israel’s right-wing government. “Israel, Saudi, the UAE… Biden [is] doubling down on support for them, even when they kill or detain U.S. citizens and residents.”

US lawmakers, activists, and journalists are leading condemnation of Ghafoor’s imprisonment.

Middle East Eye reports nearly a dozen members of Congress, including Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), and Don Beyer (D-Va.) have demanded Ghafoor’s release.

“I am appalled that Asim Ghafoor, American lawyer who represented Khashoggi, was detained and imprisoned in UAE based on an in absentia conviction with no notice or opportunity to defend himself,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) tweeted Tuesday, adding that Ghafoor “must be freed and allowed to return to the US”

Meanwhile, Cengiz said in a statement Tuesday that she believes Ghafoor’s prosecution was politically motivated.

“I have an ongoing civil lawsuit against the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, and his co-conspirators in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The trial begins soon,” she explained. “Asim Ghafoor is part of DAWN’s legal team in this lawsuit. I am concerned that the UAE has jailed Asim to intimidate the legal team and myself, and anyone who calls for democracy in the Middle East.”

Matt Duss, who advises Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on foreign policy, sardonically questioned the UAE’s commitment to fighting the type of corruption of which Ghafoor is accused.

“If you believe that UAE, a global destination for kleptocrats’ stolen wealth, has suddenly joined the anti-corruption fight and just coincidentally started with Jamaal Khashoggi’s lawyer, I would very much like to invite you to my poker game,” he tweeted.

In explaining why Ghafoor was arrested, the Emirati state news outlet WAM claimed the apprehension was the result of “mutual coordination to combat transnational crimes with the United States.”

However, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said during a Monday press briefing that the US did not want Ghafoor arrested, and that administration officials “conveyed our expectations to our Emirati partners that Mr. Ghafoor receive continued consular access, that he be afforded a fair and transparent legal process, and that he be treated humanely.”

Price stated that “we see no indication at this point that [Ghafoor’s] detention has anything to do with his association with Jamal Khashoggi, but we’re still gathering information.”

According to The Washington Post, the US Department of Justice, when asked if it requested an Emirati investigation of Ghafoor, said that the agency “does not publicly comment on communications with foreign governments on investigative matters, including confirming or denying the very existence of such communications.”

Although the Biden administration was initially applauded for pausing arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, human rights defenders have condemned renewed deals including the 2021 sale of tens of billions of dollars worth of Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets, armed drones, and munitions to the Emirati government.

Brett Wilkins is is staff writer for Common Dreams. Based in San Francisco, his work covers issues of social justice, human rights and war and peace. This originally appeared at CommonDreams and is reprinted with the author’s permission.