With reporting from Riham Sheble
The case of three former Al Jazeera Children’s Channel executives who have been charged with financial mismanagement and banned from leaving Qatar moved a step forward this week, with a Doha court hearing from the prosecution’s two final witnesses on Thursday.
During the hearing, a representative of the accounting firm Ernst & Young testified that an audit found instances of “administrative misconduct” by former manager Mahmoud Bouneb.
But the representative added that none of the three on trial committed any form of embezzlement or “harmed intentionally the channel’s funds.”
A program expert from JCC was the second witness to testify on Thursday. He told the court that management overspent on programs produced for the channel, but admitted that he did not conduct an analysis of the more than dozen shows in question.
Following a hearing last month, Bouneb, a 58-year-old Canadian Tunisian, told Doha News that he may have committed “administrative transgressions” during his eight-year tenure at JCC, such as approving big projects without getting a second signature, but never did anything approaching criminality.
This was after testimony by Qatar National Audit Bureau investigators, who examined Bouneb’s travel claims and found that all expenses were supported by receipts and that in most cases, the justification for trips were properly documented. In a few cases, however, a form explaining the purpose of the trip was not filed.
Bouneb, 45-year-old Moroccan Malika Alouane, his wife and former programming director of the station, as well as Palestinian Haitham Qudaih, a former cost controlling manager, stand accused of mismanaging approximately QR3.1 million (US$851,460) over eight years.
Last year, separate investigations by the National Audit Bureau and E&Y cleared the trio of any criminal wrongdoing.
But during the latest hearing, JCC lawyers challenged those findings and presented a new audit commissioned by a separate company. The judge ruled that the defense should also have the opportunity to present their own independently commissioned audit, and experts from both camps will present their findings on Feb. 26.
Final arguments and a verdict are expected to be reached sometime next year.
Bound by kafala
In the meantime, all three former executives said they are struggling financially and physically after not being able to leave Qatar since they were fired more than two years ago. Under the country’s sponsorship system, the trio need permission from their employer to leave the country, which JCC will not grant.
The court has so far twice denied requests that their travel bans be lifted.
Speaking to Doha News, Qudaih, a 37-year-old father of three who also takes care of his parents, said he was feeling optimistic following the E&Y representative’s testimony. But he added:
“On the one hand I feel good that we overcome the witnesses’ hurdle, but on the other hand the wait is miserable.
I am sill struggling to pay off my children’s school fees and the rent. I might find myself unable to fulfill all these obligations at which point I’ll find myself out on the streets with my family.”
“We have been waiting in limbo for 27 or 28 months. Sometimes I think to myself that being convicted and sent to prison is the lesser of two evils; at least my meals and health care will be secured and my basic rights will not be violated.
Being able to roam the city of Doha freely does not mean I am free. Being deprived of traveling to see my ailing elderly mother is shameful.”
JCC has not publicly commented on the case. The channel was previously under the umbrella of Qatar Foundation, but moved to the Al Jazeera Media Network earlier this year.