Passport forgeries land Iraqis in jail

Iraqis who sent their passports home for renewal through travel agencies say they were duped with forgeries.

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ABU DHABI // Scores of Iraqis are being held in UAE prisons accused of passport forgery after being duped by unscrupulous travel agents in their homeland.

Their only crime, they say, was trying to avoid a wait of up to two years for a new passport.

All were holders of what they believed to be genuine "G-series" Iraqi passports, introduced in 2007 to replace the Saddam-era "S-series" document.

However, until their replacement last month with a new biometric "A-series" passport, the G-series documents were in short supply at the Iraqi embassy in Abu Dhabi, with delays of up to two years.

To speed up the process, Iraqis who needed a new passport often sent their old one to travel agencies in Iraq for processing. But instead of applying for new passports on their behalf, some agencies took other used passports and simply pasted in the UAE residents' identity pages.

These crude forgeries have resulted in a steady trickle of unsuspecting Iraqis to the UAE State Security Court.

ZB, an Iraqi woman who lives and works in Sharjah, was arrested in Dubai early last year after being refused entry to Lebanon because her passport was invalid.

When she was told by the Iraqi embassy in Dubai that it would be unable to issue new papers quickly, she sent her S-series passport to her family in Iraq. They replaced it with a G-series document through a travel agency and returned it to the UAE two weeks later.

ZB stuck her UAE visa in her passport and managed to travel several times to Lebanon and Europe. On her most recent visit to Lebanon, however, she learnt the passport was fake. In Dubai, she was questioned and released on bail.

She initially insisted the passport was genuine and had been issued by Iraqi authorities. But when prosecutors contacted the Iraqi embassy, they were told a passport bearing the same number had been issued to an Iraqi man.

It took more than a year of court hearings before Chief Justice Shehab al Hammadi of the State Security Court ruled that ZB had no criminal intent and acquitted her.

Her story is one of several such tales, according to Yasser al Naqbi, of Excel Advocates and Legal Consultants, which represented ZB.

Omar, who has lived in the UAE for almost 20 years, also had his passport renewed through travel agents in Iraq and was issued with a fake.

He was arrested in Amman, Jordan, last summer and sent back to Dubai, where he was charged and detained "on and off" for almost three months. He is still being tried at the State Security Court.

Rasha, an Iraqi friend of Omar's who also lives in the UAE, said he had told her there were "at least 300" other Iraqis in prison for the same reason.

She had also been told there was a two-year wait for a new passport. "Going to Iraq is not an option; my family would never let me go there," Rasha said. "I chose to go to Jordan and do my passport from there." She said it took her about 10 days to obtain a passport.

The Iraqi embassy said Iraqi nationals with older passports, including the G-series, should change their passports to the new A issue.

"The passport A is difficult to be tampered [with] because the person needs to be present so that biometric information, such as pictures and fingerprints, can be taken," Nour Tasneem, the consul at the Iraqi embassy in Abu Dhabi, said. The system rejects the application if the applicant is not present.

Mr Tasneem said "sufficient quantities" of the new passports were available to allow applications to be processed within two weeks.