YANGON, MYANMAR--Behind the walls of Myanmar’s infamous Insein Prison; where murderers, thieves, rebels, dissidents, rapists and drug dealers are housed in squalor rife with HIV, a lone Sri Lankan scam victim is expected to languish for one year because of a mere visa overstay.
Abdul Salam Irshad Mohmood, 39, a Sri Lankan national living in Yangon, Myanmar, turned himself in to authorities on May 23 after he discovered virtually all major syndicated media outlets in the country had published erroneous reports suggesting he had ties to the Islamic State and that he was an accomplice in the Easter Bombings which killed at least 250 people in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa in Sri Lanka in April.
Despite being cleared of any terrorist association whatsoever by Myanmar police investigators, on July 10, Mohmood was sentenced to a year imprisonment for overstaying his visa by 15 months.
“The result of this case is highly unusual, and I think it might have to do with the fact Irshad didn’t have access to his own money once incarcerated, and had to rely on a state-appointed lawyer to argue his case regarding what could have been a minor issue with immigration authorities. Nevertheless, it is never good to wear out your welcome as a guest in a foreign country. Respect for immigration law is important, especially for Muslims,” says a retired Myanmar-based legal practitioner who preferred not to be named.
Prior to Mohmood’s arrest, a fake news frenzy was instigated by a business rival, Govin Gyawali, who duped Mohmood on the sale of a high-end sapphire in 2018.
Gyawali is known country-wide by many Myanmar gem dealers to be part of a sophisticated group of Mogok-based Nepalese fraudsters who have deceived fortunes not only from foreign nationals but also local Myanmar people as well.
“He (Gyawali) spread a rumour about Irshad and the media just took it,” says Govind Aryl, a friend familiar with Mohmoood’s predicament. “Within a few hours, everybody in Myanmar who looked at their phone saw the news, which claimed he was a fugitive.”
Myanmar’s demonstrably less-than-credible news agencies are known to cut corners. It is very common for publications to copy stories from other agencies without validating information with sources.
An elite squadron of police officers were swiftly dispatched from Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s deserted capital city. The officers were sent to apprehend, interrogate, and ultimately deal with Mohmood, who was at that brief period of time a globally-sought fugitive wanted for heinous terrorist acts in his home country, according solely to syndicated news headlines.
Known by his middle name, Irshad, Mohmood is a quiet and soft spoken gem collector who frequented Bogyoke Market, a famous open air gem centre in the crumbling downtown core of downtown Yangon. Friends and acquaintances alike--inside and outside of the gem industry--describe Irshad as a polite and gentle man. It is perhaps for this reason that he fell prey to an elaborate gem scam which landed him in hot water in the first place.
(Mohmood, photographed with Myanmar gem dealers in Yangon)
“Irshad was the first and probably only friend I made when I came to Yangon. You could see the spirit in his face, he was always smiling. I knew when I read those news stories about him being linked with terrorism, it couldn’t have been true,” says Bharat Moradiya, an Indian fabric businessman who stayed at the same hotel as Mohmood and was subsequently interviewed by investigators shortly after his detainment.
Each week, hundreds of gem dealers from across the country congregate on a single cobblestone alley in the back of Bogyoke Market, a left-over building and trade centre established during British colonial rule.
Wads of kyats, Myanmar’s national currency, are exchanged for tiny precious stones sometimes worth fortunes if in the hands of the right buyer. Gem deals are also struck with bricks of crisp and clean $100 U.S. bills.
Fortune seekers from around the world are given free reign to take the risks associated with buying high-end gemstones in such a chaotic, unregulated and unnacountable atmosphere.
In 2013 Mohmood set out to Myanmar to source top quality sapphires from Mogok, the country's famed valley of gems.
Mohmood is well known in Yangon’s expatriate community, courting a friendship and business relationship with a high profile American museum curator by the name of Roger Long, who vouched for Mohmood’s innocence following his detainment in May.
(Mohmood, photographed with American expatriate Roger Long)
Friends have launched a GoFundMe fundraising campaign called “Justice for Irshad”, run by Tokyo-based Fuji Yakabongo, a longtime friend of Mohmood’s and a connoisseur of fine sapphires from around the world.
On July 10, an embattled Mohmood contacted this reporter following his 1-year sentencing at Mayangone Township Court in Yangon.
“Everyone told me you only have to pay 3 dollars per day…,” he said through a crackling telephone line. “I wanted to rebuild my business, that's why I came to Myanmar...I’m not a bad guy, but in my business, something happened. And because of my background, my family name, they used it…”
A mere overstay, albeit more than one year, is still a minor immigration infraction which rarely causes imprisonment in neighbouring Southeast Asian nations with strict immigration rules. But for Myanmar, there is potential for foreigners to face heavy prison sentences for disrespecting their permission to be in the country.
“I’M NOT A BAD GUY, BUT IN MY BUSINESS, SOMETHING HAPPENED. AND BECAUSE OF MY BACKGROUND, MY FAMILY NAME, THEY USED IT..”
A usual slap on the wrist and a deportation was not in the cards for Mohmood, and he is expected to remain incarcerated in Insein Prison. Since at least the 1980s, Insein Prison has been known globally for its poor treatment of prisoners and dissidents, many of whom in decades past have later described frequent instances of torture and physical/mental abuse.
As Mohmood has learned, the famed Bogyoke gemstone market in downtown Yangon is rife with dangerous Nepalese gangsters masquerading as gem merchants. In Spring 2018 he spent about $6,000 USD on a 4.15 carat blue sapphire, which was sold on the premise that it was of Myanmar origin.
Within the trade of precious stones, the origin of a gem--in this case sapphire--can exponentially affect the market value. Sapphires of a particular quality from one region of the globe are far less valuable than those of another, despite looking almost the same. Because of this price discrepancy, a common scam within the trade is for unscrupulous dealers to mask the origin of a stone.
Mohmood agreed to buy the sapphire from Gyawali. Practicing due-dilligence, he brought it to Yangon-based Asia Glory Gemmological Lab (AGGL), which has been known to fraudulently mask the origin of gems so local sellers can cheat outsiders out of thousands of dollars. Once the certificate was issued, Mohmood handed over the money.
When the same sapphire entered another (far more sophisticated and credible) laboratory in Bangkok, the true origin was revealed: according to Dr. Adolf Peretti at GemResearch Swisslab in Bangkok, the sapphire originates from West Africa, not Myanmar.
(Two laboratory reports on the same gem. One is fraudulent and the other is accurate)
A trove of recorded phone and in person conversations shows Mohmood, over the course of months, repeatedly reaching out to Gyawali, his associates, and family members in a desperate but polite (and not overly forceful) effort to get his money back, only to be dodged and avoided for more than a year.
The money was split up among several members of the Nepalese scam ring; so no single fraudster could be expected to return all, or any, of the money back.
“Spreading a rumour about a Sri Lankan Muslim supposedly linked to the Islamic State was a trick instigated by the Nepali mafia. As long as Irshad is in a jail cell, there won't be anyone around asking for their money back anymore, that's why they did it," says Akbar Khan, a private detective and amber collector familiar with the case.
To date, Mohmood has yet to have had his name cleared in any publication for wrongly being associated with the Islamic State. Members of the public, upon seeing his face, react with anger and outrage because they believe the news stories to be true.
“The media should at least be honest and print a correction as a form of minor compensation to the damage that they’ve already done to Irshad. It goes to show that even the editors of BBC Myanmar are not capable of verifying their facts before publication,” says Khan.
According to Yakabongo, friends of Irshad are hoping to raise money so Mohmood can launch a lawsuit against the media agencies that allegedly defamed him.
“Anybody who knows anything about the dirty world of Myanmar media will understand that my friend is an innocent man, a victim actually, who might die in one of the world’s worst jails because of the Nepali rumour mill. This is a sickening injustice and we hope to get him a proper lawyer so he can get home as swiftly and safely as possible,” wrote Yakabongo in an email exchange.
GoFundMe has currently suspended its fundraising campaign due to support limitations for recipients residing within Myanmar.