With reporting from Riham Sheble
Three former executives of Al Jazeera Children’s Channel (JCC), charged with financial mismanagement and unable to work or leave Qatar, say they’re facing fresh delays in their trial after a JCC lawyer requested the removal of the lead judge.
The lawyer and judge Abdulla al-Emadi have clashed on several occasions in previous hearings over the relevancy of the lawyer’s evidence and questioning of witnesses, who have testified that they’ve found no evidence that any money went missing or was improperly spent.
The courtroom tensions culminated in the judge filing a disciplinary claim against the JCC lawyer following a hearing in December.
During a brief court appearance late last week, the lawyer argued that the judge should step down in light of their dispute. The presiding judge said the request would be referred to the head of the Primary Court, a process that could take two months.
The move will likely cause further financial hardships for the defendants, because they have not been able to work or leave the country since being fired nearly two and a half years ago.
“This is the peak of absurdity,” said former JCC executive general manager Mahmoud Bouneb.
He is on trial with his wife, former programming director Malika Alouane, and former cost controlling manager Haitham Qudaih.
Speaking to Doha News, Bouneb, a Tunisian-Canadian, added:
“We believe that what happened … during our hearing in court is a purposeful disruption to the case leading to its indefinite suspension … The legal representatives of JCC, since day one, have exhausted all forms of absurdities to prolong and paralyse the court proceedings.”
During a visit to Qatar earlier this year, the United Nations special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers indirectly criticized the judiciary’s handling of the JCC case. Specifically, she chided prosecutors for not being more forthcoming in providing more information to the defense team during the investigation phase.
The three former JCC executives and a dozen other senior staff members were fired from the station without public explanation in September 2011. While most of those former employees have since been able to return to their home countries, Bouneb, Alouane and Qudaih have remained under a travel ban and were formally charged in May 2013 – some 20 months after losing their jobs.
Witnesses from the State Audit Bureau and accounting firm Ernst & Young have testified that they found evidence of “administrative misconduct” by Bouneb, such as insufficient documentation for several travel claims, as well as contracts that were awarded without the required co-signature of a board member.
However, the reports concluded that there was no evidence that the money was improperly spent.
Bouneb previously attributed such “transgressions” to the stress of managing a TV studio with a heavy production schedule.
“Sometimes, you need make a decision on the spot,” he told Doha News in November.
However, he was adamant that none of his mistakes approached criminality, and an Ernst & Young representative said in December that none of the three on trial committed any form of embezzlement or “harmed intentionally the channel’s funds.”
In addition to being unable to leave the country, local sponsorship laws prevent the three from legally working in Qatar without a no objection certificate that JCC has refused to grant.
This has put a financial strain on the former executives and created an additional set of legal headaches.
Qudaih’s wife gave birth to the couple’s fourth child last month, and faced challenges in obtaining a birth certificate because the residency permits of both parents have expired.
Furthermore, the couple lacks health insurance, owes money to the bank – which has led to an additional travel ban on Qudaih – and are struggling to pay their children’s’ school fees.
He said he’s reached out to JCC and Qatar Foundation, which previously owned the channel, for help with his residency issues but has been stonewalled:
“This silence is killing (me). They don’t care about the fines (we) are charged for our (lack of) residencies. They can afford to pay them, but we are the ones suffering.”
JCC now falls under the auspices of the Al Jazeera Media Network. Neither have commented publicly on the case.