With reporting from Riham Sheble
Three former executives of Al Jazeera Children’s Channel (JCC) on trial for financial impropriety in Doha say they hope to present expert testimony for the first time when their trial resumes this month.
A judge had previously asked both sides to hire specialists to prepare reports to support their cases.
The trio of defendants had expected the court to hear from their appointed auditor during the last court hearing in February, but the proceedings – which started more than a year ago – were abruptly halted when a JCC lawyer requested the removal of the lead judge, Abdulla al-Emadi.
The two men have repeatedly clashed in the past over the relevancy of the lawyer’s evidence and questioning of witnesses, all of whom said they’ve found no evidence that any money went missing or was improperly spent by the three defendants.
According to one of the defendants, former JCC executive general manager Mahmoud Bouneb, the JCC lawyer’s request that the judge be replaced was rejected. He also told Doha News that the lawyer was fined QR10,000 (US$2,746) in addition to an administration fee of between QR2,000 and QR3,000 ($549 and $824).
“This is a sign that the judicial system is aware of such stalling tactics and does not fall for them,” Bouneb said. “It has been made very clear that JCC wants to waste the court’s time, which is a waste of our time.”
Bouneb, a Canadian-Tunisian, his wife and former programming director of the station, Moroccan Malika Alouane, and Palestinian Haitham Qudaih, a former cost controlling manager, were among roughly 30 staff members abruptly fired in September 2011 by JCC.
The station was then owned by Qatar Foundation, but has since been transferred to Al Jazeera. Neither company has publicly commented on the case.
All the fired employees have since been allowed to return to their home countries, with the exception of the trio on trial. A travel ban prevents them from leaving Qatar, while the country’s sponsorship, or kafala, system means they cannot seek work with another company without JCC’s permission – something the broadcaster has refused to grant.
The three say this has put them under considerable emotional and financial strain and makes the pace of proceedings especially frustrating.
“This (case) has taken a miserably long time,” Alouane told Doha News.
It took more than a year and a half before charges were read out in court, which Bouneb said accused of mismanaging approximately QR3.1 million (US$851,460) over eight years.
An audit by accounting firm Ernst & Young found instances of “administrative misconduct” by Bouneb, such providing insufficient supporting documentation for travel claims and approving contracts without obtaining the required co-signature of a board member.
But an Ernst & Young representative testified that none of the three on trial committed any form of embezzlement or “harmed intentionally the channel’s funds.”
“We hope to see the end of this soon. They have taken three years of our lives,” Bouneb said. “All of this is unbecoming of a country like Qatar.”
The trial resumes April 22, when both JCC lawyers and their defendants are scheduled to present expert witnesses and reports supporting their cases.