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Opinion

The U.S. Must Act to Stop a Human Rights Abuse in Kuwait

The single mother of a four-year-old U.S. citizen has been imprisoned in Kuwait for over one year on baseless criminal charges. For the past six months I’ve been working with a team of lawyers and human rights advocates for the release of Marsha Lazareva, so that she and her family can return home to Pennsylvania. If Kuwait is unable or unwilling to correct this injustice, the U.S. government may be forced to impose sanctions on those responsible.

Marsha is one of the most prominent business executives in the Middle East. She and her co-defendant, Saeed Dhasti, were arrested and convicted without the opportunity to present a defense, in a trial that depended on falsified documents and two key witnesses who have since recanted their testimony.

Based on my experience as a U.S. federal judge, prosecutor and as director of the FBI, this is a clear violation of the fundamental due process rights which both Kuwaiti law and international standards of justice require for a fair trial. I have also conducted an independent investigation of the charges and found them to be without any factual or legal basis.

After graduating from the Wharton School of Business, Marsha set out for the Persian Gulf where, over a 13-year period, she developed an impressive business reputation, started a private equity fund, and drew investment dollars from Kuwait government entities, including The Kuwait Port Authority or KPA, and other gulf investors.

In 2017, this private equity fund sold a major real estate project in the Philippines that earned the fund’s investors a handsome profit. Then suddenly, the proceeds of the sale were frozen in a United Arab Emirates bank at the request of the Kuwaiti attorney general, and Marsha was thrown in jail for allegedly “embezzling” these funds. The truth is that all the proceeds and substantial profits have been returned to investors and creditors. Marsha was also accused of falsely billing the Kuwaiti Port Authority for work that was not performed, a charge that has totally collapsed based on evidence found by our team.

Serving as an independent witness for Marsha’s defense team, I have reviewed every aspect of the case, including the exculpatory facts contained in a pair of reports by Daniel Gill, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent and forensic accountant. In the past few months, Gill and I have traveled to Kuwait twice, prepared to lay out the evidence that clearly exonerates Marsha and Saeed, yet neither of us were permitted to testify. We have also offered to present this evidence to the attorney general, who to date has not been willing to receive our testimony.

In what appeared to be a first step toward justice, the Kuwait Court of Appeals earlier this month voided the convictions for the “false billing” case. This reversal was without exception, so both defendants should have been immediately released as a result of their convictions being overturned. Instead, the judge increased the cash bail for both defendants from $33 million and demanded an additional $65 million from each – an unprecedented amount in my experience.

Of course, this is not “bail” at all, because this extraordinary sum cannot be met by the defendants or their families. I have great respect for the rule of law in Kuwait, but there is now no legal or factual basis for their ongoing detention.

I have visited Marsha in the Kuwaiti prison where she has been confined to a crowded cell with up to six women for over a year. The stress of her incarceration and separation from her family, including her four-year-old son, have taken a harsh mental and physical toll.  Marsha’s mother, also a U.S. citizen, has been forced to leave her home in Bryn Mawr, Penn., to care for her grandson in Kuwait while Marsha remains imprisoned.

Marsha’s next hearing is on June 9th.  Fundamental principles of Kuwaiti law, human rights, fairness and plain decency demand that Marsha and Saeed be immediately released from prison and given the due process and justice to which they are entitled. If the court refuses, the Trump administration and Congress should work to impose sanctions against the individuals responsible for Marsha’s false incarceration, and to pursue her immediate release through diplomatic channels. 

 

Louis Freeh is a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, federal judge and prosecutor, and a member of the legal team representing Ms. Lazareva.

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