Millionaire owner of Dubai’s "Little Britain" attacks jail term over bounced cheques.
A British property tycoon, famous for buying a £43 million man-made island in the shape of Great Britain off the coast of Dubai, has branded the Gulf state “backward and unjust” after it jailed him for seven years over a series of bounced cheques.
“I could not believe what I was going through,” he wrote. “I kept on thinking this is a modern country, it has laws, it depends on foreign citizens and investment, surely its legal system cannot be this backward and unjust?”
One of 200 Britons jailed in the United Arab Emirates, where the Queen is due to visit later this month, he added: “David Cameron has the power to enforce change. How can we as a nation entertain a regime that allows our citizens to invest money and then (be) jailed?”
He wrote: “We went from having five staff to almost 100 within two years. We started to enjoy the better aspects of life. We sent our kids to the best school in Dubai and we could enjoy amazing holidays. Our business turnover was £600 million.”
His company specialised in beach front properties sought after by stars like David and Victoria Beckham and Rod Stewart, who reportedly invested in the Gulf State as it was transformed into a playground for the rich and famous.
The firm survived the country’s property crash which saw newly built luxury apartment blocks and hotels left empty. But last January, without warning, Mr Qurashi and his business partner were arrested by plain clothes police.
“They told me I was being arrested for bouncing a cheque. They said not to worry, in two hours we would be let go.
“I was held for eight hours in a cell. No phone calls. No lawyer. Then I was kept handcuffed to a chair for another eight hours.
“We were asked two questions: our names and whether we signed the cheques. As I answered yes, we were sent to Port Rashid jail, built to house 80 prisoners, (but with) over 200 people inside.”
“It was shocking. At night it resembled a refugee camp. For our first few days we slept on a concrete floor, taking it in turns to sleep.”
After two days they were met by the prosecutor who said they were being charged over three bounced cheques, made out for millions of pounds.
But Mr Qurashi claims the cheques were handed over as security in a series of property deals and should never have been cashed as the deals had been completed.
The prosecutor said they would face a hearing in two weeks. “Just like that, two weeks in jail,” Mr Qurashi wrote.
“After six days our lawyer arrived. We had been in the same clothes for a week, with no place to wash, no soap or shampoo.”
“The lawyer, who we had hired, omitted to tell us that he was the defence lawyer in a (unconnected) civil case we had filed in 2009. His offer was simple: drop all charges...and I will help you.
“Suddenly the Dubai I knew, trustworthy, clean, crime free, non corrupt, all disappeared.”
Meanwhile Mr Qureshi’s wife, Huma, was struggling, looking after their young children, Sara, 12, Maaria, nine, Yousuf, four, dealing with lawyers and trying to keep the business afloat.
“My wife who was pregnant at the time of my arrest suffered a miscarriage. That was a particularly difficult thing. Trying to suppress the anger and frustration was difficult and the environment in which we were in was not easy.
“We hired a new lawyer who had two five minute with us. He said “this is not England, we do things our way”.
“There were two hearings – each one a minute long and I was sentenced. The judge had not read any of our evidence. I was assumed guilty even before I attended court.”
After his conviction he was transferred to the country’s main jail. Conditions are better, but the other inmates include murderers, rapists and drug dealers.
He has now been in jail for nine months and is allowed to see his wife each week “through a glass window, over a dodgy intercom system”.
His final appeal was dismissed last month. “My children have been told and they cried for days. They wrote me great letters of encouragement, although it is very hard to read them through all the tears that would flow.”
He added: “Dubai boasts that it has a very fast judicial process. That’s right. In a one hour court session a judge hears between 30-40 cases - only 90 seconds per case. Guilty or not guilty. This is the legal system of modern Dubai.”
Last night Mr Qureshi’s family said they had asked for help from the Foreign Office but were told they could not intervene.
His brother Farhan Qurashi said: “They say a lawyer in Dubai has to say due process has not been followed. But no lawyer in Dubai is willing to put their name to that.
“In the meantime my brother rots in jail and his family suffer. This is a terrible miscarriage of justice.”
Safi Qurashi's open letter from Dubai jail cell
Two years ago I shot to fame as the man who bought "Little Britain" in UAE. This is my story of how my Dubai dream became a nightmare.
There I was kept handcuffed to a chair for another 8 hours. No-one spoke English. I was asked two questions: my name and whether I signed two cheques. When I answered yes, I was sent to Port Rashid jail at 4am. The prison was built to house 80 prisoners; there were over 200 people inside. There were only four showers and three toilets. People were sleeping on the floor and in the kitchen. At night it resembled a refugee camp. For the first few days I slept on a concrete floor. I had no access to lawyer or phones. When I saw the prosecutor he asked about a cheque to a Russian investor. I told him everything and asked about bail. He said no bail was allowed and he would see me two weeks after he spoke to the Russian.
Just like that, two weeks in jail. Finally, on the fifth day, I was allowed to make a five minute call to my wife. She arrived next day with a solicitor who said don't worry, you will get bail in two or three days. These days were the most difficult. I was in the same clothes for a week, with no place to wash, no soap or shampoo. For a month I slept on the bare floor.
Then the second shock. My solicitor turned out to be the defence lawyer in a (civil) case I had filed earlier against a friend of his. His offer to me was simple: drop all charges against my friend and I will help you. My lawyer and the prosecutor were college buddies and good friends. Suddenly the Dubai I knew - trustworthy, clean, crime free, non-corrupt - vanished.
Then my wife suffered a miscarriage. That was a particularly difficult thing. Nights were lonely. Trying to suppress the anger and frustration was difficult. However, human nature and the sheer will to deal with problems makes you discover qualities you sometimes think you never had. I got a new lawyer who spent five minutes with me. When I said surely he needed input from me, he responded "this is not England, we do things our way". I didn't understand then, what he meant, but now I do. There were two hearings – each one a minute long. Two questions were asked and I was sentenced: a seven year jail term. I realized that the judge had neither read nor reviewed any of the evidence. He did not establish whether I actually broke the law. A cheque bounced. Nothing else was considered. I kept on thinking this is a modern country, it has laws, it depends on foreign citizens and investment, surely its legal system cannot be so backward? Surely they are not this unjust?
I was three months in Port Rashid jail. By the time I left, more than 300 prisoners were being held in that tiny place. I was allowed three phone calls a week each lasting only three minutes. I had to, in these nine minutes, manage my business and my legal affairs, speak to my wife and worry about the wellbeing of her and my children. I had not spoken to my children for three months. The hardest thing was telling my mum, my brothers and my sister where I was.
My wife visited every week but I couldn't bear my mum and children seeing me there. Sometimes you have to put the biggest stone on your heart and carry on with life. This is what I did. I spent my 41st birthday, my wife's 40th, my son's fourth birthday and my 20th wedding anniversary in jail. My children cried for days. They wrote me great letters of encouragement, although some days it was very hard to read them through all the tears that would flow.
But my kids' faces remained strong in my eyes; what are they doing? How are they coping? How will they survive? On April 1 I was moved to the central prison - with murderers, rapists, armed robbers and drug dealers. These are not the people I belong with, I kept on thinking. But at least I had a place to sleep and it was clean. There were only six to a room and we had to share a bathroom. But it was better than sharing with 350.
I hated the indignity of court: being handcuffed and strip-searched. All of your respect and dignity trodden over. Seeing your family in the court room, paraded in front of a full court room in prison uniform. The court of appeal was no better. Dubai boasts that it has a very fast judicial process. That's right. In a one hour court session a judge hears 30-40 cases. The same judge will hear a murder case, drug case, fraud, theft, drink and cheque case all in one hour and decide the outcome of each in only 90 seconds.
There are lots of British and foreign nationals whose businesses and families are struggling. People should see it's dark side beneath the glitz and glamour. I was surrounded by businessmen whose dreams of Dubai were turned into a nightmare as they had been labeled criminals.
My mum is my biggest worry. She is an old lady and suffered a heart attack in the Summer. I had to close my company and people lost their jobs. What took 6 years to build was destroyed in less than 6 months. You feel like screaming, shouting, crying – why will no one listen to me? Where is the British Government? There are over two hundred Brits in jail, most in the same situation. They all came to Dubai to start a new life, 99 percent never had any criminal record. Dubai has branded them criminals. Why is our government allowing this farce to happen?
I hope and pray that someone out there hears our pleas. We are not criminals. All we want is justice.