'I may never see my husband again': Wife of ailing British businessman
Ryan Cornelius is locked in Dubai jail over banking fraud, his wife says he has been condemned to die behind bars because he cannot repay millions demanded by Emirati state
Ryan Cornelius has spent 13 years in a Dubai cell with five other inmates
He may have to serve 18 more years because he cannot repay millions of pounds
His wife Heather says the Foreign Office has abandoned them
A British property developer has effectively been condemned to die behind bars in Dubai, says his distraught wife, so that senior figures in the Emirati state can seize control of his assets, including a lavish city-centre polo resort.
Heather Cornelius says her husband Ryan has already spent 13 years in a cell the size of a shipping container with five other inmates following a minor banking fraud.
But her husband, now in ill-health, must spend a further 18 years in jail because he cannot repay millions of pounds demanded by the Dubai authorities.
The Foreign Office, she says, has abandoned them.
Cornelius's Kafkaesque ordeal has been condemned by supporters demanding his release, including senior peer Lord Clement-Jones and Bill Browder, the London-based financier and campaigner.
Browder, who helped bring about the Magnitsky laws imposing international sanctions, including travel bans, on corrupt government officials, described the 31-year sentence as 'an unbelievable miscarriage of justice'.
Speaking in a parliamentary debate last year, liberal Democrat peer Lord Clement-Jones, described the case as corruption of the highest order.
Radha Stirling interviews with BBC on Ryan Cornelius with Lord Clement-Jones
'Ryan has no assets left,' he told The Mail on Sunday last week. Half a billion pounds has been taken away by using the Dubai courts – and his freedom.
'Effectively a British citizen has been allowed to rot in jail. This is absolutely unacceptable.'
Cornelius's wife, Heather has been reluctant to speak out but is now doing so out of desperation.
She says the British government is doing next to nothing to help despite his treatment by the Dubai regime, which kept him hooded in solitary confinement for ten days following his arrest – and, she says, would later extend his sentence by 20 years behind closed doors with no trial and no lawyers present.
Cornelius, 67, is now due to be set free when he is 85 years old, but Heather believes he could die in the Dubai's Central Prison – particularly if the authorities produce a further unexpected charge against him.
'I believe they are determined to keep my husband in jail until he dies,' Heather told The Mail on Sunday.
'Perhaps they are afraid that Ryan will tell the truth about the theft of his assets. There is no other explanation.
'I am terrified that he will pass away behind bars and that I will never get to see my husband again.'
Supporters of Cornelius believe he is the victim of a plot orchestrated at the highest level in Dubai by Mohammed al-Shaibani, a figure close to the Sheikh.
Al-Shaibani, who has been accused of being the perpetrator, in the House of Lords, has already been implicated in the brutal abductions of the Sheikh's daughters, Princesses Shamsa and Latifa when they attempted to flee Dubai in 2000 and 2018.
Lawyers acting for Cornelius plan to petition the British and American government to impose asset freezes and travel bans on senior figures in the Dubai regime in protest at Mr Cornelius's case in the coming weeks.
Dubai is already under fire for the treatment of foreign nationals caught up in its labyrinthine legal system while the Sheikh is also scrutiny for the mistreatment of his former wife, Princess Haya.
Officially, Cornelius stands convicted of fraud over a £372million loan he received from Dubai Islamic Bank to fund an upmarket 20million square foot polo development .
In the eyes of most Western observers, the property developer was guilty of no more than a minor financial infraction. He had kept up with every repayment until his arrest.
Heather says the nightmare began in 2008 when Ryan was arrested by three plain-clothes policemen at Dubai airport during a stopover.
The officers seized his phone, bound his hands with zip-ties and took him to police headquarters where they put a hood over his head and held him in solitary confinement with no access to his family, the embassy or a lawyer.
It was ten days before she heard from her husband, recalls Heather.
Dubai police interrogated Mr Cornelius for hours in a padded, windowless room. They thrust invoices at him and demanded to know about the loan he had received from the Dubai Islamic Bank, which he had improperly funnelled into developing the Plantation.
The spectacular resort was to be a 200-room hotel in the heart of Dubai with 110 luxury villas attached.
It would boast world class equestrian facilities including hundreds of stables staffed by professional polo players and show jumpers, two polo fields, an indoor arena, a health club and a private member's club with bars and restaurants.
Cornelius was baffled, said his wife.
Yes, the polo venture carried more risk than had been technically agreed and was not an authorised use of the loan. But he was able to point out that, with his business partners, he had subsequently disclosed this to the bank, entered into a repayment agreement signed off by a team of lawyers, and that not a single payment had been missed.
Even so, he was held without trial for almost two years.
In March 2010 he appeared before a judge charged with fraud and money-laundering. He was not provided with a translator and could not follow the court proceedings.
In a surprising twist, the judge recused himself from the trial, apparently unwilling to continue on the evidence presented.
But Mr Cornelius was not released. Instead a new judge was appointed and fresh charges of defrauding and stealing from a state body were brought against him.
This time the charges stuck and the businessman was sentenced to a decade behind bars – an outcome that convinced Heather that senior figures in the administration simply wanted to get his hands on her husband's lucrative polo resort.
Worse followed in May 2016, when Mr Cornelius had served eight years and, with the usual 25 per cent reduction for good behaviour, expected to be released.
Instead he was hauled into an office where a judge handed him another 20-year sentence using a law that allows creditors to keep a debtor imprisoned for failing to repay money owed. He says he was refused a lawyer.
Mrs Cornelius believes that her husband is trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare, in which he is locked up for failing to repay a loan that it is impossible to repay – because he is locked up.
'Their intention is for him to never get out,' she said.
'Ryan and his partners had not defaulted on the loan, they had paid their debt right up until they were put into jail.
'Of course you can't run businesses from jail so I think effectively the Dubai authorities wanted to silence everybody and keep them out of the way.'
Meanwhile Cornelius's lucrative property portfolio has been confiscated by the authorities, which is to say they now hold assets that could be worth up to three times the amount of the original loan – though this valuation is heavily disputed.
The Plantation alone was valued at £755million when Cornelius entered into the repayment agreement in 2007.
Heather and her supporters believe that al-Shaibani, who had become chairman of the bank just a few months before Cornelius was arrested, is deeply implicated.
The financier is the sheikh's right-hand man and, according to The Economist, is arguably the second most powerful person in Dubai outside the royal family.
'They had decided to take Ryan's assets,' said Heather.
' Then keep everyone in jail so no one could come forward and say what really happened. To my mind that was the intention.
Lord Clement-Jones named al-Shaibani as the powerful man keeping Ryan prisoner in the speech he gave to the House of Lords last year.
It is not the first time that al-Shaibani, has been accused of mistreatment.
He has been named as a key conspirator in the kidnaps of the sheikh's daughters Princesses Shamsa and Latifa.
Shamsa, then 19, vanished on a street in Cambridge in August 2000 and was spirited away to Dubai via private jet. She has not been seen in public since.
An English court determined that Mr Shaibani was closely involved in the plot to kidnap al-Maktoum's daughter and was even present when the teenager disappeared.
And then three years ago, the sheikh's daughter Latifa, then 32, was also kidnapped while attempting to flee Dubai on board a yacht.
She accused al-Shaibani of being involved and said that he forced her to make false statements to British courts and the UN denying that she was being held against her will.
The treatment of Cornelius has been disastrous for his family.
Heather and her three children – a daughter, 32, and two sons, aged 30 and 19 – became homeless when the couple's three London properties were handed over following a successful debt claim by Dubai Islamic Bank in the British courts.
The family has survived by taking turns staying with Heather's sisters.
'We had everything taken from us,' she says.
'I have family in the UK that have strived to help me and their homes are my homes but it's not really what you envision at 60 years old.
'Our main focus is supporting our children.
'You can't imagine how hard it is to keep up hope with so many twists and turns and things that seem terribly wrong in the whole process.'
'Dubai Islamic Bank is already in possession of assets previously valued at over a billion dollars.
'Ryan has lost a decade of his life, and lost everything he built over the past 30 years.
'His family is homeless and he is bankrupt; yet Dubai Islamic Bank seem to want him to remain in jail indefinitely, and in Dubai, they have the power to make that happen.'
Mr Cornelius is due to be released from Central Prison in 18 years, when he will be 85 years old. But Heather fears that her husband, who caught tuberculosis in custody, will pass away in jail.
'Ryan is in there for life.
'He contracted TB in jail and for two years they didn't treat him.
'His health has deteriorated, he has high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
'He tries to keep himself fit but 13 years in jail would put anybody's health in jeopardy.'
She cannot remember the last time she saw her husband in person. Even before the pandemic made travel to Dubai almost impossible, she could no longer afford the flights.
Her youngest son was the last family member to see him face-to-face, four years ago.
But the couple speak on the telephone two or three times a day although their conversations often only last five minutes as other inmates line up to contact their own loved ones.
'I really do panic if I haven't heard from him.
'I get in a dreadful state because some days the phones aren't working well and there's a queue to use the phone.'
Mr Cornelius is just one of thousands of Westerners in jails across the UAE on trumped-up charges according to Radha Stirling, the CEO of Detained in Dubai, an organisation that provides legal advice to people jailed – often falsely – in the Middle East.
'This is a case of corruption,' she says.
'The more successful you are and the bigger your assets, the more at risk of facing false criminal charges you become.
'We have been trying to warn people about it for years.'
Lord Clement-Jones, who has campaigned for Mr Cornelius's release since 2014, said that the case highlighted the dangers of conducted business in the UAE.
'It's really appalling for Dubai's reputation,' he said.
'Our government appear so cosy with Dubai that they won't say boo to a goose.
'The Americans and Australians have been much tougher, got much better results and managed to get their subjects home.'
Mrs Cornelius, 62, was scathing about the Foreign Office.
'Our appeals to them go unanswered.
'Only one senior official has ever visited Ryan and that was a couple of years ago.
'He promised to rectify the situation but we never heard from him again.'
Against the odds, she remains hopeful that somehow her husband will be released from the clutches of Dubai officials and reunited with his family in London again.
'I don't think I'd survive if I didn't still hope. We all cling on to that hope.
'I think if the Foreign Office would just step in and put pressure on and support us, we could get Ryan released.
In a statement, the embassy of Dubai said it looks after the medical welfare of its prisoners:
'Ryan Cornelius illegally obtained loan of £372 million, by bribing staff members at Dubai Islamic Bank.
'Following a fair trial in which all due processes were followed, Mr Cornelius was sentenced to ten years in prison, which was later lawfully extended as he had failed to repay the creditor (Dubai Islamic Bank) during this time - which is in line with UAE law. The whereabouts of the funds Mr Cornelius obtained are unknown.
'The UAE judicial system is independent and equitable, and guarantees the mandatory presence of a translator at all stages, the right to seek a lawyer at all stages, the provision of a lawyer at the state's expense if the defendant cannot appoint legal counsel, and the right to appeal.'
Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai, commented, “It appears that Dubai Islamic Bank dealt with the financial crisis in part by identifying high value assets of its clients and then concocting methods for seizing them through legal machinations. There is no doubt that DIB knew perfectly well that Ryan’s loan was for the development of The Plantation, and if their former chairman misled the bank’s board about this, then he is at fault; not Ryan; yet, as a local, he has never been held to account. DIB is already in possession of assets valued at over a billion dollars, seized by means of the spurious criminal case against Ryan, it is outrageous that they should be allowed to retroactively apply Law 37 and keep him imprisoned just so they can try to increase their profits by another $500 million. Ryan has lost a decade of his life, and lost everything he built over the past thirty years, his family is homeless, and he is bankrupt; yet DIB wants him to remain in jail indefinitely, and in Dubai, they have the power to make that happen.
“We call upon the British government to intervene in Ryan’s case and lobby for his immediate release; and we call upon DIB to exhibit the basic human decency to forego the utterly unreasonable demand for further restitution beyond what they have already devoured of Ryan’s assets. “The case of Ryan Cornelius serves as a stark warning to any foreign investor considering doing business in the UAE: any creditor at any time, for any reason, can arbitrarily decide to appropriate your assets, lock you up and throw away the key.”
Detained in Dubai: http://www.detainedindubai.org Detained in Doha: https://www.detainedindoha.org Radha Stirling: http:///www.radhastirling.com Due Process International: http://www.dueprocess.international Podcast: http://www.gulfinjustice.news