Dh14.4bn bank scam 'targeted economy'

Two in court charged with fraud and forgery, while mysterious Iranian 'mastermind' implicated in similar cases remains at large.

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ABU DHABI // Three Iranians who attempted to withdraw Dh14.4 billion (US$3.9bn) from the Central Bank were seeking to undermine the national economy, prosecutors have claimed. IK, an Iranian, and NB, a naturalised American of Iranian descent, appeared in the Abu Dhabi Criminal Court of First Instance yesterday charged with fraud and forging documents after they attempted to withdraw the astronomical sum from the Central Bank on Bainunnah Street in April.

Another defendant, identified as Agha Farzeen Sonali, was charged in his absence. His whereabouts are unknown. Prosecutors said the case was one of six similar incidents. The similarities in evidence were an indication that all suspects were part of one group or subject to the same scam. The first incident, prosecutors said, occurred in 2007. "We all know that anything can affect a country's economy," prosecutors told the court yesterday.

"The purpose of these people was to succeed in their fraud attempt and therefore affect the economy when people know the bank was subject to fraud. So we ask for the toughest punishment against them." The prosecution said each of the cases involved a defendant claiming he had gone to the bank to inquire about the validity of documents granting him access to funds stored at the bank, and to inquire as to whether the funds existed.

The cases also each involved a defendant acting as a Persian to Arabic translator. In each instance, Mr Sonali contacted people through a mutual friend and told them he had funds in the bank that he needed them to withdraw, according to court documents. The Central Bank does not hold private funds and deals strictly with other banks. All those suspected of attempting to withdraw funds in the scheme have been arrested.

Central Bank staff told prosecutors that the documents carried identical stamps and signatures to those of the bank. "Any other banks would be tricked unless they sent them back to the Central Bank," they said. It was not clear whether Sonali's name is real, an alias or wholly fictional. He has been convicted in the other cases in his absence. IK told the court that he was a victim of fraud himself. He said that he had a plot of land in Iran and had wanted to build a tourist village.

"I advertised in a newspaper that I was seeking an investor for my land," IK told the court. He was then contacted by an investor, Sayeed Mohammed Husaini, who offered to finance the project. The investor said he was serving as a middleman for Sonali. The funds withdrawn from the Central Bank were to be used for IK's project, while Mr Husaini would collect one per cent as a personal bonus. Mr Husaini told IK that Sonali had billions of dirhams in the UAE Central Bank and would provide IK with power of attorney, enabling him to claim the funds, the court heard. IK does not speak Arabic or English.

One of IK's workers in Iran contacted his brother, NB, in Al Ain, and asked him to translate for IK, according to testimony. IK, who was not represented by an attorney, told the court knew he could not withdraw the funds as he only had copies of the documents, which were faxed to him by Sonali. NB's attorney told the court there was no evidence that he was trying to commit fraud. "The bank staff, the police investigation and the defendants' confessions to police and public prosecution have included nothing that indicates [NB] was involved in the [fraud] case," Mahmoud al Azmeh, for NB, told the court.

"There is nothing in the UAE law nor in any other law that punishes translators for translation." IK confirmed NB had only served as the translator. In March this year, Sonali was sentenced in absentia to five years' imprisonment for his part in a separate Dh36bn Central Bank withdrawal scam. hhassan@thenational.ae