Socialite jailed for £50,000 fraud flees open prison

The socialite daughter of a prominent Asian property tycoon is being sought by the police, after absconding from prison nine months into a three-and-a-half-year sentence for theft, deception, and perverting the course of justice.

Farah Damji, 40, a former magazine editor, had been convicted in October of fraudulently spending nearly £50,000 on luxury goods, using credit cards stolen from her nanny and a former employee at Another Generation, an Asian lifestyle magazine. She also impersonated David Blunkett's secretary, and two members of the Crown Prosecution Service, in a failed attempt to have the charges against her dropped.

She failed to return to HMP Downview in Surrey on Saturday, after being given permission to attend an Open University tutorial at the London School of Economics, publicly disclosing her absence yesterday on her page on the internet site MySpace.

The Independent later tracked her down to a friend's house in south-west England, where she denied trying to abscond, and claimed to have been the victim of a "misunderstanding". She said she had taken the decision not to return after discovering that the Prison Service intended to refuse her a licence to attend an educational course at St Martin's College next week.

"I was very upset to discover this. During my sentence, I have been learning to paint, and to make handbags. I had enrolled on a course in handbag design because they had initially said I could go. So I just thought, I'm not coming back. Later that day, I e-mailed the prison governor to say what I was doing. I have not absconded, and I am not on the run. The Prison Service knows where I am. I have been speaking to them regularly, and if they want to come and find me, then they can.

"It's not as if I am trying to escape. If I wanted to, then I could be on the other side of the world by now. I have been allowed out on three or four other licences previously, sometimes overnight, and always returned on time."

Damji, the daughter of the South Africa-based property developer Amir Damji, is due to leave prison with a tag in September and her sentence would normally finish in February, after she had served half of the 42-month term.

She said yesterday: "This is all a misunderstanding. I have spoken to the Prison Service and they have said, 'Look, come and talk to us, we understand what you have done'."

Damji, who was born in Uganda and has two children, founded the magazine Indobrit - which later relaunched as Another Generation after a legal dispute - in 2002. She gained notoriety in media circles in 2003, when intimate details surfaced about her two affairs with high-profile married men: the writer, William Dalrymple, and a senior executive on the Guardian Media Group.

After they came to an acrimonious end, someone calling herself "Ms Equaliser" circulated a detailed account of the affairs in an e-mail to dozens of prominent journalists.

At her trial at Blackfriars Crown Court Damji, who admitted more than 25 offences, expressed remorse and blamed her crimes on alcohol, drug addiction and post-natal depression. It emerged later that she had served a six-month jail sentence at New York's Rikers Island jail in 1995 for grand larceny and forgery.

Last night, a Prison Service spokesman said: "We can confirm a person who was released on a temporary licence from HMP Downview on Saturday, 22 July has failed to return. This is now a matter for the police."

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