Notorious on-the-run con woman to remain in custody
A notorious on-the-run con woman, who is the daughter of a wealthy property tycoon and who is wanted in the UK for fleeing her trial, will remain in custody here while her extradition case moves through the courts.
Farah Damji (53), who submitted that she has been working as an artist in Ireland, had earlier this week applied for bail while she awaits the hearing of extradition proceedings brought against her by the UK.
However, High Court judge Mr Justice Tony Hunt said this Thursday morning that if he were to ignore Ms Damji's high risk of absconding, the "the casual observer might think I had taken leave of my senses".
Ms Damji fled to Ireland in February this year during her trial in which she was convicted in her absence by Southwark Crown Court, London, of twice breaching a restraining order in April and June 2018.
Ms Damji, who presented herself as an Icelandic national and was living at an address at Bachelor’s Walk, Dublin 1, is the daughter of a South African-born property tycoon and has a criminal record for fraud and theft stretching back to the 1990s.
Mr Justice Tony Hunt, delivering his judgement refusing bail this Thursday morning, said that Ms Damji was at "high risk" of absconding if granted bail in Ireland.
In supplemental submissions this Thursday, the applicant's barrister, Mr Leo Mulrooney BL, told Mr Justice Hunt that medical documents and emails had been supplied to the court corroborating Ms Damji's previous claim that she was not intending to "lay low in Ireland forever".
Mr Mulrooney said that Ms Damji was attempting to regularise her position in Ireland and that she had to make arrangements before consenting to her arrest here.
Samples of Ms Damji's artwork were also handed in to court as proof she had been working as an artist to supplement living here in Ireland, corroborating what she had said at a previous hearing, where she denied having access to her deceased father's wealth.
Mr Justice Hunt said that in the case of a European Arrest Warrant issued in relation to a conviction in absence in a foreign jurisdiction, there was no presumption of bail being granted by the domestic jurisdiction.
"In any realistic view, the Minister [for Justice] has established a substantial risk of absconding rooted in real evidence and the previous behaviour [of Ms Damji]," said Mr Justice Hunt.
The judge said that Ms Damji had left the UK midway through a trial that was concluded in her absence, a "highly relevant" fact that he said was "intimately connected with the application for surrender".
The judge said that because she had absconded from the authority seeking her and from the same trial that convicted Ms Damji that it "gives rise to a very high probability that the same situation may be faced again".
Mr Justice Hunt said that "concerns had not been allayed" and noted that Ms Damji had access to and had recourse to use false documents and had also used aliases.
"It's not a concern, it's a fact. It's a recent actuality and it feeds heavily into the risk-assessment in this case," said Mr Justice Hunt.
The judge said that if he were to ignore this that "the casual observer might think I had taken leave of my senses, regarding the high-risk [of absconding]".
The judge acknowledged matters raised by Ms Damji's counsel, Mr Mulrooney, regarding a 2019 diagnosis that she was suffering from complex PTSD but concluded that in the case of Ms Damji that it was not, on its own, enough of a factor to grant or refuse bail.
Regarding a concern raised over prison conditions in the UK, Mr Justice Hunt said that all prison systems have a range of physical and mental health concerns. "Of course, custody is stressful across the board, except for those who seem to welcome it, always being in and out of custody," said the judge, who did acknowledge that visiting restrictions were in place.
At a previous hearing, Ms Damji said that her delay in return to the UK had extenuating circumstances and that she was in litigation with that State over alleged unlawful detention.
Mr Justice Hunt said that Ms Damji's litigation against the UK authorities was unlikely to conclude as long as she was "in effect, a fugitive" from the same authorities.
The judge also took into consideration the "very considered manner" in which Ms Damji left the UK and described it as taking "thought and planning", with the use of false documents. Ms Damji had a false UK driver's licence when arrested in Ireland and had used aliases when sourcing accommodation
"It is at odds, somewhat, with the condition [complex PTSD] described in the medical report," said the judge.
The judge said that he did not know the source of the money Ms Damji travelled to Ireland with and said that her financial situation was "opaque" regarding any bond or independent surety offered.
"Nothing goes close to satisfying the substantial risk of absconding, nothing goes close to allay those fears and concerns and in those circumstances the refusal of bail is inevitable," said the judge.
The judge asked Mr Mulrooney if his client had made an asylum application, as she had told the court she had been in contact with the Irish Refugee Council, but was told no.
"It seems unusual, to be from the UK and apply, but maybe it is not as outlandish as it may have once been," said Mr Justice Hunt.
Ms Damji will appear in the court again on October 21 for her extradition hearing.
At a previous hearing, Detective Garda Eoin Kane said that Ms Damji was facing 27 months in prison in the UK for the restraining order breaches and that when she was arrested by gardaí in Dublin last month, she gave the false, Icelandic name 'Anna Margaret Vignisdottir'.
Det Gda Kane had told Ms Emily Farrell BL for the State, that gardaí challenged Ms Damji about her true identity when arrested on August 17 of this year. Ms Damji replied, "no comment" and only admitted her real name when in Garda custody.
Det Gda Kane had said that Ms Damji used a false name when opening her bank account and did the same when entering into a rental agreement at Bachelor's Walk.
The witness had said that Ms Damji was "living under the radar" and that she gave the address of a neighbouring apartment when shipping her personal belongings from the UK before meeting and directing the delivery man to her own apartment.
Det Gda Kane had said that Ms Damji's father was a multi-millionaire who passed away 10 years ago and that Ms Damji claimed to gardaí that his fortune had been put into a trust for his grandchildren. He added that Ms Damji was a flight-risk with no ties to Ireland and had entered only a short-term rental lease.
Ms Damji has six convictions for 28 offences, said Det Gda Kane, which included multiple theft and fraud offences dating back to 1995 and is currently under investigation for alleged offences under the Theft and Fraud Act.
Ms Farrell put it to Det Gda Farrell that Ms Damji claimed she was of limited means. "I wouldn't accept that," said Det Gda Kane, who added that Ms Damji was in possession of a Rolex and Breitling watch in her apartment when arrested.
In her direct evidence to the court, Ms Damji had said that she had been in contact with several solicitors and with the Irish Refugee Council about her case and had emails and voice notes to prove so.
Ms Damji said that she had asked solicitors to write to the Department of Justice to notify authorities that she was in Ireland but that had not happened.
Regarding ties to Ireland, Ms Damji said that the father of her daughter and a cousin of hers, a GP, were in Ireland. Ms Damji said that she had a breakdown during her trial in the UK and that she was told by her doctor not to attend court. She added that it was difficult for her solicitors to take instructions "from a six-minute phone call" while in custody.
Regarding her deceased father's fortune, she said there were "no hidden trust funds, it's just not true".
She added that she did not use a false name on a rental agreement as she didn't have one and that she was unsure if her landlord was a real landlord at all.
"He might have an issue about whether or not who is a real tenant - kettle and the pot, is it not?" said the judge.
Ms Farrell told the court that Ms Damji had no ties to Ireland, there was no detail supplied about her GP cousin and that Ms Damji's mother and children were in the UK.
Counsel said that Ms Damji accepts that she travelled on a false document and that the concern was that she had access to money, had an ability to move countries and that no conditions would satisfy objections to bail.
Mr Justice Hunt said to Mr Mulrooney: "If you stopped the average person walking down Parkgate Street and said to them that there was a person in that building there applying for bail and that she is not a risk of flight and yet six short months ago she departed from a trial in the middle of London, what would the average person, or the average judge, say to that?"