Updated to include more details from the report.
Qatar should work to improve the independence of its justice system so that it is free from political meddling, a United Nations official has said following a weeklong visit to the country.
Gabriela Knaul, the UN’s special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, held a midday press conference in West Bay on Sunday to share her observations following eight days of interviews with government authorities, members of the judiciary, diplomats, defendants in ongoing proceedings and others.
Though Knaul could not corroborate the tales of direct interference that she heard, she called the reports “a matter of concern.” She added that she received information showing that prosecutors have been influenced by powerful individuals and representatives of large businesses.
Speaking to reporters, she said:
“A clear distinction must be drawn between public and state interests. Acting on behalf of the public interest should not be perceived as protecting the interests of the government.”
Part of the problem appears to be that constitutional provisions separating power between the executive and judiciary branches do not appear to be fully implemented. Additionally, she noted Qatar’s prosecutor general holds the rank of minister, which may create confusion regarding his independence from the executive.
Knaul also noted the potential complications from having two tiers of judges: tenured Qataris, and foreign justices working in the country on temporary contracts.
Attracting more Qataris to legal professions was one of the reasons for hiking the benefit packages of judges, judicial assistants and Qatari members of the public prosecution last summer. But for the moment, the country lacks a sufficient number of qualified and interested Qataris, Knaul said.
“We have heard that there is a perception that there is a different level independence between Qatari and non-Qatari judges,” as the latter can be dismissed more easily, she said. Knaul later added that local lawyers and prosecutors should give non-Qatari judges the same level of respect as Qataris.
More broadly, she also said she had received reports of “discriminatory attitudes” towards non-Qataris by police, prosecutors and judges, but did not offer any specific examples.
Knaul criticized how several trials currently before the courts are being handled, although she generally took steps to avoid explicitly identifying them.
Indirectly referencing the Villaggio fire, she said she was “disturbed” to hear that an independent expert report written to establish the facts in a high-profile case involving the deaths of 19 people, including 13 children, was never released to the affected parties.
Knaul added that it was “unacceptable” that hearings before a court of appeals keep being postponed because the defendants – already convicted and sentenced to prison terms – fail to show up when summoned.
“The result of the lack of due process followed in this case is to deny victims closure and justice,” she said.
When asked by Doha News about her meeting with Grace and Matt Huang – the couple charged with killing their adopted daughter – Knaul said the travel ban on the two US citizens should be lifted:
“The evidence that they have in the case should be considered as it is, and not (attempted to be forged into) something in order to try to say that they have done things that they haven’t done.”
The Huangs were at Sunday’s press conference, but told Doha News that they were not giving interviews.
Knaul also raised the case of several individuals – likely the former executives of Al Jazeera Children’s Channel who are accused of financial mismanagement – who were slapped with a travel ban, but not officially notified. This prevented them from filing an appeal, she said.
The same defendants were not given access to any information during the investigation phase, Knaul said, and were only informed of the charges against them at their third court hearing.
“Until they attended the court hearings, it was impossible for them to prepare their defense,” she said.
The lack of transparency – specifically the difficulties that confront lawyers in accessing information, files and documents held or controlled by the authorities – during criminal investigations and court proceedings “remains a matter of concern” for Knaul.
Allowing lawyers to examine such evidence was one of more than a dozen recommendations she outlined on Sunday.
The rapporteur’s recommendations include:
Opening and running Qatar’s Constitutional Court, which was technically created through legislation more than five years ago;
Establishing a code of conduct and ethics for judges, which includes detailed guidance on the types of infractions that will trigger disciplinary measures;
Facilitating the appointment of more female judges, as there are only two women among the 198 judges currently serving in Qatar;
Creating an independent and self-regulating bar association – which would control who becomes a lawyer and protect its members from undue interference in their work;
Implementing modern technology in the courtroom to improve transparency. The current system of hand-written minutes, for example, leaves proceedings open to manipulation and don’t always capture all the details of a case;
Making available proper translations of documents and interpretations of court proceedings for non-Arabic speakers;
Waiving court fees for vulnerable individuals, such as construction laborers and domestic workers; and
Providing more on-the-job training for judges, prosecutors and lawyers.
Knaul said her visit to Qatar came after she requested and received an invitation from the government. She added that authorities assured her last week that they are determined to to improve the system “where needed.”
Speaking to reporters, she said:
“Qatar has come a long way in a short time when it comes to developing its justice system. The recent dramatic population growth has put the country’s institutions under pressure and they will need to adapt and promote reforms in order to be able to deal with the challenges that will continue to arise with the influx of foreign (residents) and the tremendous economic development the country is going through.”
When asked, she said she could not say whether the government agreed with all of her opinions on what reforms are needed in Qatar, but said her preliminary observations were “very well received” by officials.
Knaul, who travels to the UAE later this week for a similar information-gathering visit, said she would prepare a more comprehensive written report based on her observations in Qatar that will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council next year.