More than half of the public correspondence received by Department of Justice last year on the subject of sentencing related to the imprisonment of a Dublin GP for tax evasion.
The department and Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan received more than 40 letters objecting to the jailing of Dr Bassam Naser, known locally as Dr Sam, who was sentenced to 16 months in June 2018 for failing to pay almost €100,000 in income tax.
The rest of the 77 letters and emails from the public, which were released to The Irish Times under a Freedom of Information request, are mostly critical of the criminal courts for being too lenient with offenders.
The messages relating to Dr Naser however are markedly different in tone. Correspondents, most of who appear to be patients or friends of the doctor, said he was “literally a hero”, “unlike anyone I have ever known” and “a vital part of the community”.
One person suggested the Minister order the release of the doctor “and have one of your colleagues in the Dáil take his place”.
Members of the public variously asked that the doctor be pardoned, granted remission or given day release so he could reopen his GP practice in Sutton, north Dublin. One suggested his prison sentence be replaced with community service so Dr Naser could work in a hospital emergency department.
The jailing of Dr Naser by Judge Martin Nolan prompted locals to organise a high-profile campaign for his release. Public meetings were held and an online petition attracted thousands of signatures including from Senator Frances Black and local councillor Jimmy Guerin.
Minister of State Finian McGrath supported the campaign and raised the matter with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Mr McGrath stated he had been advised by the Attorney General that Mr Flanagan could commute the prison sentence on humanitarian grounds.
Dr Naser pleaded guilty to evading tax in 2006 and 2007 by failing to pay about €100,000 owed to the Revenue Commissioners in respect of 1,686 cheques, amounting to €159,951 from patients, that he lodged to undeclared bank accounts.
He has since been released having served about 12 months and has resumed his practice. While in prison he was declared bankrupt by the High Court which heard he owed Revenue €1.6 million in unpaid tax.
Cllr Guerin asked in one letter if Dr Naser was being treated differently because of his support for the Palestinian community in Ireland. The councillor said the sentence was a punishment for "the entire community" and that many of his older patients are "genuinely afraid of what will happen to them".
Another wrote that the sentence was “a terrible injustice”, adding “it is not an exaggeration to say that Sam Naser has saved dozens of lives in our community”.
Many raised the fact the doctor has seven children, including one with a heart condition, and was given no time by the judge to get his affairs in order before going to prison.
A large number of the messages contrasted Dr Naser's prison sentence with the suspended sentenced given to Independent TD Michael Lowry for tax offences by the same judge three weeks later.
“I feel very strongly that an injustice has been done. Why, why did Michael Lowry not go to prison?” one writer asked the Minister.
Only one correspondent spoke against Dr Naser. They criticised Mr McGrath for speaking out on behalf of the GP and said the sentence was too lenient. “Mr Nasser (sic) should be deported on release,” the writer added.
Despite the almost universal support for the doctor, Mr Flanagan responded to most letters with the same message – that he could not legally interfere with decisions of the courts.