Student in plane mutiny faces jail term for fraud

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The Independent Online

An Asian student who was at the centre of a race row when he was removed from a holiday flight following a mutiny from passengers, is a convicted fraudster facing a possible jail term.

Sohail Ashraf, 21, and his friend Khurram Zeb, 22, were escorted from the Malaga to Manchester flight last month after other tourists voiced fears that the men could be terrorists.

The incident provoked accusations of racism, but suspicions about the motives of the two men were raised after it was revealed that they had only been in Malaga for a few hours before flying home, leading to allegations that the affair had been a publicity stunt.

It has since emerged that Ashraf is facing jail for cloning credit cards while working at a petrol station. Details of the fraud were heard in court two days after the race row, but have not received publicity until now.

Ashraf pleaded guilty to the theft of £2,960 and was charged under the Proceeds of Crime Act to the value of £6,000 by magistrates in Macclesfield. The court was told on 18 August that he copied credit card details while working at the Kings Arms Garage, Wilmslow. He put the stolen money towards a £38,000 BMW.

The conviction will be seized upon by the airline industry which believes that the row was a deliberate stunt to obtain money from the media. The pair deny that their behaviour was a hoax that got out of control.

The removal of Ashraf and Mr Zeb from the airliner on 16 August received huge publicity after passengers said they were "acting suspiciously". They were wearing heavy clothing in the heat, continually checking their watches and speaking in Urdu, which was mistaken for Arabic.

Joe Naughton, 43, a teacher who was on the flight, said that the two caused the mutiny by their own behaviour. He said: "They were probably just trying to wind us up. One of them was very agitated and said: 'This is going to be the longest half hour of my life.' Then I heard the lad in the middle say: 'They haven't checked my shoelaces.' I decided to get off."

Six travellers left the aircraft and refused to reboard the Monarch Airlines flight after the pair aroused suspicion. The students were escorted off the flight by armed police but were later cleared by airport security and returned to Manchester on a plane the next day.

It was later revealed that they booked flights at £166 each after the massive security alert following arrests over the alleged plot to bomb transatlantic airliners.

The itinerary of the two men also aroused suspicion, with the outward journey landing at 7.25pm in Malaga and returning to Manchester at 3am the next morning. Despite arriving at night the two men said they wanted to 'check out' the resort before taking a holiday there next month. "It was the cheapest way to do it," said Ashraf. "It only cost us about £350, including a hire car."

They spent their time in Malaga, he said, visiting bars and McDonald's.

Ashraf, who lives in Manchester with his parents, brother and two sisters, added: "We did not do anything to attract attention. It was only when a little girl started to cry that people got agitated."

After the incident, Ashraf said that his only brush with the law was a fraud conviction two years ago.

But his credit card fraud came to light after he put his illegal proceeds towards a £37,950 BMW. In court he admitted cloning customers' debit and credit cards in November 2005 while working at the petrol station.

Sentencing was adjourned until 11 September. Magistrates warned Ashraf that he could be jailed.