(CN) – A former French intelligence operative who hoped to make a splash as a designer of personal submarines says the Emirate of Dubai wrongly imprisoned and threatened to torture him after a joint business venture went sour. The tale – complete with an escape in a rubber dinghy amid fears of Arab patrol boats – is outlined in Herve Jaubert’s complaint against Dubai World Corp. in Martin County Court, in Stuart, Fla. The Emirate replied by suing Jaubert in Miami Federal Court.
In an interview with Courthouse News Service, Jaubert said he filed the suit to clear his name. In June, a Dubai court convicted him in absentia on charges of embezzling $3.8 million and handed down a 5-year sentence, plus a stiff fine.
Dubai World’s attorney, Edward Mullins, of Astigarraga, Davis, Mullins & Grossman, said it was Jaubert who did the defrauding, grossly overstating his expertise in submarine building, overcharging ate for parts and materials, and using money invested in the venture on himself.
Neither side disputes that in December 2003, Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem Bin Sulayem, chairman of Dubai World and one of Dubai’s leading businessmen, traveled to the U.S. with two associates and met with Jaubert in Stuart, Florida, to inquire about purchasing a submarine.
Two months later, according to Dubai World’s federal complaint, the three men solicited Jaubert’s participation in a joint venture to design and manufacture submarines in Dubai.
At the time, Jaubert, a former French naval officer who left France’s DGSE intelligence service in March 1993, ran a modest business selling personal submarines and submersibles.
Some he sold to the well-heeled, Jaubert said. Others, “to individuals who didn’t explain what they wanted them for, but who always paid me in cash, often in 20s,” he said.
A typical small sub cost about $35,000, though some models cost significantly more, depending on their size and sophistication, Jaubert said.
The business deal with Dubai offered something far more lucrative. According to court documents, the proposal called for Jaubert to be granted joint venture participation, including a percentage of the profits.
The multimillion-dollar operation was to be funded by Dubai World, which manages and supervises a portfolio of businesses and projects for Dubai’s royal family.
Jaubert moved to Dubai with his wife and two children in 2004.
That’s when the tales told by Jaubert and Dubai World diverge.
“I knew right away, or within six months anyway, that what they had in mind and what I had in mind were two different things,” Jaubert said. “I had planned to manufacture submarines and submersibles for a worldwide market. They basically wanted me to be a private toy manufacturer for rich Arabs.
“I thought I could overcome this, that once in business, the market would come to me and they would catch the train,” he said. “To me, it didn’t make sense that they would turn their backs on a money-making opportunity.”
Dubai World’s lawsuit offers a different account of the unwinding of the partnership. Dubai says it quickly became apparent that the joint venture was hemorrhaging money and failing to produce a sellable product.
An independent financial audit found that Jaubert grossly overcharged the Emirate for goods and services – sometimes marking up costs by 130 percent – and that he spent $3 million on materials that were not necessary to build submarines, Dubai’s complaint states. It claims that a subsequent independent technical audit found some subs were so poorly designed that its air pumps would be able to keep the driver alive for only 18 minutes.
Dubai World claims that when confronted, Jaubert admitted his wrongdoing and promised to make restitution – but rather than make good on his promise, he “decided to leave Dubai” and returned to Florida.
Jaubert’s book about his travails, “Escape From Dubai,” is to be published in October by Headline Books, a small, West Virginia-based publisher. Jaubert described a more sinister series of events while speaking to Courthouse News Service.
Jaubert said given the worsening world economic climate, his Emirate partners began to look for scapegoats for their business failures, engaging in “widespread prosecutions” of anyone who owed them money or were involved in business partnerships that weren’t working out.
Although they allowed his family to return to the United States, Jaubert said the Emirate seized his passport, and its security officers embarked on a series of interrogations, three in all, which culminated in threats of torture.
“It was pretty graphic,” Jaubert said. “For instance, one of the things they said they would do was strap me down and put needles up my nose until I confessed.
“As someone with experience in interrogation myself, I thought those threats were somewhat amateurish, but also, in their amateurishness, perhaps even more serious,” he said. “Nevertheless, as a former intelligence officer, I saw their game right away and decided to play it. That’s why they allowed my family to leave.”
Jaubert said one interrogator told him, “We are above the police; we are above the judges. We can keep you here forever.”
Somewhat improbably, Jaubert claimed to have recorded this and the threats of torture during interrogation on his Nokia cell phone.
“The first two times I was interrogated, they took my phone and simply put it on the table in front of me. That last time, I took the phone out and asked if I could keep it on, in case an important call came through. Little did they know that it was recording. It had no blinking lights or anything like that,” he said.
Pressed about that, Jaubert said he explained that he was the “CEO of a big company” and did not want to miss a potential sales call. He said if it were true that he owed Dubai all that money, they wouldn’t want him to miss a sales call either.
Jaubert said he ultimately signed a confession to avoid torture and to avoid winding up in jail.
“Without a passport in Dubai, you are nobody. You are nothing. You cannot make money, rent a car, or rent an apartment. But at least I still had a home where I was allowed to stay,” he said.
It was there, during four months, that Jaubert said he devised his escape.
“As a professional, I explored every possible option for escape, but decided on the water because I had been a French naval officer, and because If I was going to do this, I needed my getaway to be a 100 percent success, and leaving by sea appeared to be the only way to achieve that.”
Working with a friend who lived in France, Jaubert said, he had diving equipment shipped to Dubai, broken down into small components to avoid suspicion.
Using a fake name, he bought a rubber dinghy and sailboat, the latter, ironically, from the brother of the “president of Dubai.”
(“President” is not a term used in the Emirate, where the Emir, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is known as the “ruler.”)
Jaubert said he spent days surveying the 51-mile coast of the Emirate, looking for an escape route. Finding an isolated beach, he arranged for his compatriot to take the sailboat into international waters.
Jaubert said he checked into a hotel near the beach, and when darkness fell, put on his diving equipment and pulled on an abaya, the body-length covering worn by Muslim women. Once aboard his dinghy, he said, he disabled the single patrol boat at a nearby police dock.
“Given the type of craft I was escaping in, I knew that to be successful I needed to ensure the greatest distance between myself and my possible pursuers,” he said.
Jaubert said he swam to the patrol boat, climbed aboard and sabotaged it. He declined to provide details.
“I did not cut the fuel lines, because that would show someone did this with intent, that someone was trying to get away with something,” he said. “Suffice to say that as a former intelligence officer, I know how to sabotage a vessel to make it look like a system failure.”
Jaubert said he sailed on to meet his friend in international waters, which took him about six hours. The two then sailed toward India, and arrived in Mumbai eight days later.
Sneaking ashore, Jaubert arranged to receive a new passport and exit visa at the French consulate, explaining that he was a French tourist who lost all of his official paper while sailing on friend’s boat. He then flew back to Florida, where he’s been working on his book ever since.
Jaubert claims Dubai didn’t learn of his escape for months, and did so when a reporter from Bloomberg News Service traveled to the Emirate to investigate his claims. For his trouble, the reporter was detained for 10 days for questioning, Jaubert said.
Jaubert’s conviction in absentia on fraud charges followed shortly thereafter. The Frenchman describes that trial as “a crime unto itself.”
“When you do something like that, when you coerce people to testify an innocent party and fabricate evidence – all of which was done – you lose all legitimacy,” he said. “So if I committed a crime on my side, by escaping, it was self-defense.”
Jaubert said he believes Dubai convicted him and sued him in Miami because “they were in a panic, and believed doing this would stop me from publishing my book.”
“I filed my lawsuit because they defamed me,” he said. “I did not defraud them. I have records. They defrauded me and ruined my reputation. I want to clear my name and I am also seeing financial compensation for the damages I have endured.”
Jaubert said he’s no longer selling submarines or any other kind of watercraft, and will not do so until the lawsuits run their course.
“I have lost very significant business opportunities,” he said. “I don’t want to build boats and submarines while in the middle of a legal battle. Still, I welcome the opportunity to get this to court because at least here I will enjoy the one thing they could deny me in Dubai: due process.”
Jaubert is represented by William Hess with Hess & Heathcock in Stuart, Fla.