DUBAI: For nearly three years, British businessman Safi Qurashi languished in jail after being convicted in three cheque fraud cases amounting to Dh187 million.
Now back home to celebrate his first Eid with his family after a court cleared him of two of the three cases, the 43-year-old multimillionaire developer said he cannot undo the past.
Qurashi launched a hunger strike in April in Al Aweer Central Jail in a desperate attempt to clear his name. He walked free on July 25 after a judge found that two of the biggest claims against him amounting to Dh180 million did not conform to the UAE’s anti-cheque fraud law.
His business shut down, but Qurashi said he does not blame Dubai for the “mistake” that led him to spend two Ramadans in jail.
XPRESS met him at an Umm Suqueim villa where he and his family are looking forward to a big Eid gathering. Excerpts from an exclusive interview...
What went on — in your body and mind — when you launched your hunger strike?
I was drinking water, fruit juices and milk... I was determined to prove that I was innocent.
What lessons did your jail time teach you?
An experience like this teaches you humility. It opened my eyes, ears, mind and heart to people and to things that I never even thought about. I missed my family and my kids terribly. Watching the kids grow and not being part of their lives was heartbreaking.
The two Ramadans that I spent inside were difficult, especially during Eid when I had to stay away from my loved ones. God tests people He truly loves to strengthen our faith through hardships.
Jail time changes you as a person. I kept myself busy. I’ve read around 350 books. I’ve never read that much material before. Of that, around 200 were Islamic books. They were amazing. I also studied the UAE law on my own.
I knew I was innocent, but I believe God decides our destiny. I felt that I had a reason for being in jail, so I did as much as I could to help people. I wrote and gave lectures on Islam to non-Muslims and Muslims alike. I made use of the time I spent there to explain my faith to my cellmates and three of them — an Englishman, a Nigerian and a Filipino — embraced Islam.
It’s a massive feeling holding the hand of someone reciting their Shahadah for the first time. It was worth whatever I’ve gone through in jail. And then, God gave me justice. Our family is comfortable with whatever comes from Allah. Whatever happens is God’s will. The way we react is our choice.
How did you feel when you were released?
It was nice walking out of those doors. It was a humbling experience. The scene in our house was different — it was festive. My children and their cousins — around 11 kids altogether — gathered in a villa and prepared ‘Welcome home’ banners. They rushed towards me, sprayed me with silly strings and hugged me. It was a huge welcome party. I am happy that now I can be with them again.
You are considered a poster boy of bounced cheque cases. What have you learnt?
My case is testimony to the fact that cheques are misused by a small number of people or companies in Dubai. More must be done by the judicial authorities to protect innocent people from ending up in jail.
According to the UAE law, a bounced cheque doesn’t automatically equate to cheque fraud. It’s about having a new perspective on the way a bounced cheque case is viewed by authorities. The only way to deal with the situation I was in was to learn the intricate details of the law — not to present an alternative view of my case with arrogance but plead what is good for everyone in the long run.
What’s your advice to people who face a situation similar to yours?
My advice to others is to never give up and to have faith in the justice system. I did, and eventually I have been able to clear my name.
There are many laws in Dubai and you will be surprised to know that there are laws that protect issuers of cheques.
However, even in some of the most advanced legal systems around the world, mistakes do happen. It is important, however, that when it is apparent that something has gone wrong, it is made right quickly. If the person is not entitled to the value written on the cheque, then there is no crime. Equally, if criminal intent is not established by way of proof, there is no crime.
Since you moved to Dubai (in 2004) how many cheques have you signed as part of your business dealings?
I don’t know … they would be in the thousands.
What are the prospects for Dubai’s real estate industry?
I still very much believe in Dubai. And I hope that I am able to continue from where I left off. It will not be easy, but I can only try. Success and failure is decided by God. Life is not about being tied to the past, it is about moving forward. A few people are asking why I haven’t left yet.
I don’t blame Dubai for what happened to me. I’m not leaving Dubai. My kids love this place. My family is very comfortable here.
I still believe this place has great opportunities to offer. Mistakes would happen in any other place. The important thing is justice prevailed through the courts.
Your resolve to try again — where does that come from?
Life is full of ups and downs. Though I may have been through probably the worst time of my life, I am thankful I have come out of it.
I am still healthy and my brain still works. I have my family. So really there is not much I need in life. You just brush yourself down, get up and start again, this is the only way I know.
The present and the future is what matters... so that is all I intend to focus on. My strength comes from my belief in Allah and my family values.
How did your children take it?
My son Yousuf, six, started fasting on the 20th of July, the first day of Ramadan this year. He prayed for me to come home, and for a PS3 as an Eid present. After four days of his [Yousuf’s] fasting, I was released. But he did not want to stop his fast because, according to him, he wanted to keep his promise to God. Yousuf goes to all the Taraweeh prayers. The things my children — especially Sara (13) and Maaria (11) — did for me, like doing the videos for the justiceformydad.com campaign, were amazing. They’re my heroes.
Do you believe you can pull off a turn-around for your business?
Yes, why not? I went to jail but what’s most important is that I was found not guilty and have cleared my name. My reputation, integrity and honesty have been restored, and that is very important in business and in life as a whole.
Prophet Joseph also went to jail, and his reputation was restored and he went on to achieve great things. We have many examples like this in our history. There are many reasons for me to believe that things can be turned around, and success can come back.
What are your plans for Eid?
A big family gathering is planned in Dubai. There will be exchanges of family visits, prayers and meals together. My mother and a brother have joined us from London. I have a brother and a sister and cousins already living in Dubai. We have a restaurant booked. They know there’s a big family gathering over Eid, they just don’t know where.
What about rebuilding your business?
It hasn’t been as difficult as I imagined it would be. Former employees have called and e-mailed to congratulate me and told me about their intention to re-join the company. Investors from different places have expressed their desire to reinvest. We still own the island of Great Britain and we have plans for it. There will be something — a project — coming from us. My construction partners pursued our townhouse project in Jumeirah Village in spite of what happened to me. Today, we’re handing over 20 townhouses — in the first of eight phases planned. We expected the real estate industry would see a correction from 2008. The great thing is we continued building when prices were low and finished them as the market improves again. I just didn’t expect to spend those 30 months inside.
We were a very successful company in Dubai. All I want to do is see if I can do it again. Our role in life is to try — to have a good family, to work honestly, do well. Success or failure is from Allah. In good times, be thankful. In bad times, be patient.
THE STORY SO FAR
* Safi Qurashi, 43, was sentenced to seven years in January 2010 after being convicted of fraud in connection with three bounced-cheque cases amounting to Dh187 million
* His two daughters, Sara, 13, and Maaria, 11, launched an online campaign to highlight their father’s case(www.justiceformydad.com)
* In April, Qurashi launched a hunger strike insisting on his innocence
* In June, Essam Al Humaidan, Dubai’s Attorney General, has sent his cases back to the Court of Cassation for review after court-appointed experts found the value written on the security cheques were delivered to complainants
* On July 25, the court overturned two of the biggest cases amounting to Dh180 million following a review.
* Qurashi was released but re-arrested soon after due to a bounced-cheque case filed against him by Nakheel. He was released on bail.
* On July 31, a Dubai court has refused to quash a conviction for bouncing the third bounced cheque case worth Dh7 million. Safi insisted it related to a cheque that was cashed by the complainant despite the fact the project had been cancelled. Judgment is due later this year.
* Qurashi’s company, Premiere Real Estate LLC, still owns the Dh200 million island of “Britain” in The World project.