A woman who faked a medical degree to work as a psychiatrist for more than 20 years has been jailed for fraud.
Zholia Alemi was jailed for seven years on Tuesday (28 February) after being found guilty of using a forged degree certificate from the University of Auckland in New Zealand and a fake verification letter submitted to the General Medical Council (GMC) in 1995, Manchester Crown Court heard.
The documents allowed Ms Alemi to work for NHS trusts and private providers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, jurors were told.
During that time, Ms Alemi, of Burnley, earned approximately £1.3 million and was able to prescribe patients powerful medication, and detain patients against their will. She also moved around the country to different posts to ensure “the finger of suspicion” did not point at her.
She was sentenced to seven years in prison for 13 counts of fraud, three of obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception, two of forgery and two of using a false instrument.
At the sentencing hearing Judge Hilary Manley said that her crimes “strike so very deeply at the heart of healthcare provisions in this country", and the fact her degree certificate and supporting letter were accepted by the GMC represents “an abject failure of scrutiny”.
She added: “You benefited from that failure and of course from your own deliberate and calculated dishonesty.”
The judge raised concerns about evidence from a GMC representative during the trial in which the court was told there was a high level of scrutiny of documents.
She said the court was “troubled” by the apparent contradiction over a statement from the GMC which said documents in the 1990s were not subject to the “rigorous scrutiny” now in place.
Una Lane, director of registration and revalidation at the GMC, said: “We are very sorry that Zholia Alemi was able to join our medical register in the 1990s, based on fraudulent documentation, and for any risk arising to patients as a result.
“Our processes are far stronger now, with rigorous testing in place to make sure those joining the register are fit to work in the UK. It is clear that in this case the steps taken almost three decades ago were inadequate. We are confident that, 27 years on, our systems are robust.
“Patients deserve good care from appropriately qualified professionals and place a great deal of trust in doctors. To exploit that trust and the respected name of the profession is abhorrent.”
An ‘accomplished forger’
Ms Alemi’s lie began to unravel in 2016 when a carer reported concerns about her attempts to defraud an elderly patient and she was convicted of three fraud offences at Carlisle Crown Court.
Journalist Phil Coleman, of the Cumbrian newspaper News and Star, went on to discover that Ms Alemi had never completed the medical degree at the University of Auckland in New Zealand she claimed to have, and a police investigation was launched.
Detective Superintendent Matt Scott of Cumbria Police said: “We conducted search warrants in a number of properties, but predominantly in Northern Ireland at Alemi’s home address. What we found there was what I would describe as a treasure trove in terms of the investigation.
“There was what are now proven to be false certificates; there was what I’d describe as a forger’s kit with transfer letters, blank certificates of qualification that basically you could put almost anything you want on there, really.
“That was all located at that address along with thousands and thousands of other documents, letters, a number of which were false. So that really kick-started the investigation in terms of getting towards a prosecution.”
Detective Scott said Ms Alemi denied wrongdoing throughout and was “obstructive”, “difficult to deal with”, and, on occasion, “arrogant” while being interviewed.
Judge Manley called for an inquiry to be held into how the GMC registered her as a doctor when the documents she submitted in 1995 were "clearly false" and why it took a journalist rather than a professional governing body to uncover the truth.
Christopher Stables KC, prosecuting, said Ms Alemi was born in Iran but in the early 1990s was in Auckland, where she failed to complete the Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery degree required to practise as a doctor and was refused permission to resit. In 1995, she was in the UK where she forged a degree certificate and letter of verification, he said.
Mr Stables described Ms Alemi as an “accomplished forger” and said it was unclear how old she was as documents had three different dates of birth for her, ranging from 55 to 60.
The court heard she was convicted at Carlisle Crown Court in 2018 for three fraud offences and a count of theft after trying to forge the will and powers of attorney of an elderly patient.
Janice Wild from the Crown Prosecution Service said: “Alemi used forged New Zealand medical qualifications to obtain employment as a UK NHS psychiatrist for 20 years. In doing so, she must have treated hundreds of patients when she was unqualified to do so, potentially putting them at risk.
“Her fraudulent actions also enabled her to dishonestly earn income and benefits in excess of £1 million to which she was not entitled. We will now pursue confiscation proceedings against her, aiming to recover the criminal property from which she has benefitted.”