Howth and Sutton residents campaign in support of jailed GP

Calls on Minister to release Dr Bassam Naser, jailed for tax evasion, on compassionate grounds

Dr Bassam Naser. Judge Martin Nolan sentenced him to 16 months’ imprisonment, describing him as an intelligent man who knew what he was doing.    Photograph: Alan Betson

Dr Bassam Naser. Judge Martin Nolan sentenced him to 16 months’ imprisonment, describing him as an intelligent man who knew what he was doing. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The residents of Howth and Sutton are renowned for many things, but campaigning on behalf of convicts is not one of them.

However, such is the level of anger at the recent jailing for tax evasion of one of their number, the respected north Co Dublin general practitioner Dr Bassam Naser, that they have taken to the barricades – in a very polite but determined manner.

A campaign on behalf of the man known to all as Dr Sam has garnered very considerable support locally. It includes Riverdance producer and director John McColgan; Michael Wright of the renowned Howth seafood and hospitality business; Prof Arnold Hill of Beaumont Hospital and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland; and local politicians, among them Minister of State for Disability Issues Finian McGrath; Independent councillor Jimmy Guerin, and Independent Senator Frances Black.

They, together with almost 6,000 other people who have signed an online petition in support of the jailed GP or one in the surgery attached to his home on the Howth Road, want him released on compassionate grounds from Loughan House, the low-security prison in Cavan where he now resides.

He has been there since his conviction on June 6th of tax evasion (to which he pleaded guilty) – that is in 2006 and 2007 lodging 1,686 cheques, payments from patients amounting €159,951, on which tax of €99,435 ought to have been paid but was not.

Circuit Criminal Court Judge Martin Nolan sentenced him to 16 months’ imprisonment, describing him as an intelligent man who knew what he was doing. His conduct was “morally reprehensible”, said the judge, before the GP was led immediately to prison.

Huge asset

Naser’s supporters contrast this with the treatment by the same judge of TD Michael Lowry, convicted of tax offences (to which he pleaded not guilty) and fined, with his company, a total of €25,000 – leaving him to proclaim himself a “free man” after being “harassed, chased and hounded by various institutions of State”.

Judge Nolan praised Lowry’s role in the community, saying he was a very good public representative.

Naser’s supporters say he is a huge asset to their community. They want Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan to intervene in his case and release him on compassionate grounds – compassion for his 2,000 patients, many of whom are said to be deeply anxious that their trusted physician is no longer there for them, and compassion for his wife and seven children, one of whom is seriously unwell.

The first thing people involved in the campaign all say is that they do not support or condone tax evasion.

“Nobody does,” says Mr McColgan, “and Sam admits he has made a mistake and pleaded guilty”.

He says the whole community in Howth and Sutton was “a little outraged at the severity of the sentence”, and made immediate comparisons with the treatment of Mr Lowry.

Ciara McLoughlin, co-leader of the campaign along with Mr McColgan, said many of Naser’s patients are worried at the loss of the doctor, with whom they were familiar and who understood them.

“He’s the only doctor in the practice,” she says. “I’ve had calls and text messages from people who are really worried. He looks after so many people.”

Like Mr McColgan she prefaces her comments “we don’t condone what Sam has done [but] he held up his hands and tried to fix it”, but argues he was treated more harshly than other tax offenders.

Non-custodial sentences

Jimmy Guerin agrees. “I don’t condone tax evasion – good, bad or indifferent,” he says first off, before arguing that he has examined tax cases for the past three years, of which, he says, there are 47, and no offenders were jailed.

“The majority of them, all more severe than Sam but 47 found guilty, were given non-custodial sentences. Dr Sam was the first one in three years to get a custodial sentence. He made a mistake. He went to court with €100,000. Why was he jailed?”

Naser has a profile beyond his medical practice. He came to Ireland from Palestine 30 years ago, and, in a letter published in this newspaper last year, he styled himself “Dr Bassam Nasser, Head of the Palestinian Community in Ireland”.

Ms McLoughlin says support for a ministerial intervention is growing, despite critics – particularly of McGrath, an Independent TD – who say politicians should stay away from the judicial process.

“I just had an email from Prof Arnold Hill offering help in any way,” she said. “He holds Sam in high regard. Frances Black is a big supporter.”

The strength – or otherwise – of that support will be tested on Monday evening at a meeting in Howth Yacht Club when campaigners hope people will turn out in numbers to send a message to the Minister who has powers to grant enhanced remission of up to one third of a sentence.

Mr McColgan says he is “loath to criticise a judge” but “16 months seems to me to be severe and imbalanced”. Monday’s yacht club meeting was about “the community really wanting to express support [for the GP]. It’s really about what we see as an injustice.”