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This UK CEO has been sentenced to 2 years in Egyptian jail

Heading up a U.K. supermarket is a tough job – but it doesn't usually include jail time in a country not known for its exemplary human rights record.

Yet Mike Coupe, chief executive of U.K. supermarket chain J Sainsbury, has been handed a two-year jail sentence by an Egyptian court, over claims that he tried to seize cheques from an Egyptian who was formerly in business with Sainsbury's.

The tale of how Coupe came to be sentenced, over a disastrous business deal made by one of his predecessors, is likely to become an exemplar of the potential problems with doing business in some emerging markets.

Ben Stansall | AFP | Getty Images

Back in 2001, Sainsbury's exited an Egyptian joint venture with local businessman Amr El Nasharty, booking a £111 million ($170 million) loss in the process.

The supermarket sold its remaining stake to El Nasharty and hoped to be free of what had been a difficult investment (which had included boycotts of its Egyptian stores over alleged Israeli links, which the company denied).

El Nasharty, who spent close to a decade in the U.K. avoiding bankruptcy proceedings in Egypt, has sporadically issued proceedings against Sainsbury's several times since then, but this is the first time it has resulted in a formal ruling.

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He claimed that Coupe was in Egypt in July 2014 and tried to seize cheques written by El Nasharty to Sainsbury's in 2001 (which bounced, according to Sainsbury's).

"This is clearly ridiculous. Mike Coupe was in London carrying out his normal duties that day," a spokeswoman for Sainsbury's said in a statement.

As a result, a trial of Coupe on these charges was held in an Egyptian court in September, which he did not attend. Sainsbury's say Coupe had no prior notice of the trial.

It resulted in a two-year jail sentence, without bail, being imposed on the Sainsbury's boss.

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Coupe is currently free to travel and went to Egypt last weekend to try and deal with the charges. His case will be heard again on Sunday, May 3.

"Mike was not even employed by Sainsbury's at the time of the original business deal in 2001 which gave rise to these legal proceedings and has never met the complainant Mr El Nasharty," a spokeswoman for Sainsbury's said.

"Mr El Nasharty has consistently made false claims against Sainsbury's and individuals within the business over the years, all of which have been unsuccessful."

By CNBC's Catherine Boyle, followe her on Twitter @cboylecnbc. Follow us on Twitter: @CNBCWorld