Iranian man convicted of ?7bn fraud

Agha Farzeen Sonali is convicted in his absence of attempting to defraud the Central Bank as seven others are cleared of forging documents.

ABU DHABI // The mastermind of an audacious attempt to fraudulently withdraw 7.2 billion euros (Dh35.7bn) from the Central Bank was convicted in his absence yesterday and sentenced to five years in prison. The whereabouts of Agha Farzeen Sonali, an Iranian, are unknown. A warrant was issued for his arrest. Seven other men were acquitted of forging documents that claimed to give them access to money in a personal account belonging to Sonali.

The plan was doomed from the start, according to bank officials, because the Central Bank does not hold personal assets. "It is a bank for banks," a member of its anti-money laundering and suspicious cases unit told the Abu Dhabi Criminal Court of First Instance. The court had heard how three defendants two Belgians and a German entered the bank on December 21 last year with a power of attorney that authorised the German, VT, to receive the money on behalf of Sonali.

They had documents with account numbers and records showing that 7.2bn euros had been transferred from Germany to the Central Bank via a security house at Abu Dhabi International Airport. But the documents were immediately recognised as forgeries, the bank's witness said. The three men were arrested and led police officers to four Iranian associates, who were also accused of forging the documents.

Lawyers for the defendants said they had gone to the bank to ask if the documents they had were legitimate. The lawyers said their clients were victims of a scam orchestrated by Sonali. The men claimed they never met Sonali but had heard of him through a business associate in Austria. VT told the court that he had been contacted by an investor in Austria who wanted to finance the building of a five-star hospital in Abu Dhabi. A percentage of the money in the bank would be allocated towards the hospital project, he was told.

However, prosecutors accused the men of trying to withdraw the money. "This is one of the most dangerous crimes that threaten the economy and financial institutions of this country," prosecutors told the court. Sonali had tried similar schemes twice before, according to the bank's witness. He was also sentenced in absentia in one of the previous cases. The other seven defendants said they believed that Sonali was in Iran.