In light of the recent focus on human rights abuses in Qatar, especially among low-income expats, a renowned Nepali teacher and co-executive director of Community Members Interested (COMMITTED-Nepal) has written an account of his experience with the justice system here.
Dorje Gurung, who was fired and jailed over allegedly insulting Islam in remarks to his students at Qatar Academy earlier this year, and then subsequently released, also touches on the bewilderment of some of the country’s prison population over their detentions.
If you were accused of a crime in Qatar, and come from one of the South Asian countries that provides Doha with unskilled and semi-skilled workers, you should know that you would pretty much be on your own.
Though I hail from one of the “wrong’ countries” – Nepal – I was one of the lucky few to get out of Qatar.
But lacking English-language skills and the support of the international community, my fellow Nepali inmates, some of whom had been locked up for years, have not been so fortunate.
Falsely accused of insulting Islam, I got my freedom after spending only 11 nights and 12 days at the jail inside of the Al Rayyan police station following a massive international campaign. Had I been left there with only myself to prove my innocence, as was the case with the rest of my cellmates from Nepal, I would have still been inside, for who knows how long.
When I was charged with a crime, here’s how it worked: Following a harrowing police interrogation, I was presented to the Public Prosecution’s office, where all the proceedings there and in court are conducted mostly in Arabic.
My first day at the prosecution’s office, I was paraded, alone, in front of five different prosecutors in different rooms. I don’t know what the first four prosecutors and the official taking me around discussed between them, as their exchanges were in Arabic.
When speaking to the fifth prosecutor, they provided an interpreter – an English translator – at my insistence. Once again, I was one of the lucky ones – the other Nepalese inmates either never got an interpreter or if they did, did not understand him well because he would speak Hindi, NOT Nepalese.
This problem helped explain widespread confusion among my fellow inmates as to why there were locked up. During my time in jail, I met a young Nepali inmate who didn’t know why he was jailed. Incarcerated for more than a month on murder charges, he told me that he had no idea how his supposed victim had died.
The victim had been a fellow construction worker who, after falling ill on the site at the end of workday, had died in the hospital two days later.
Official court documents are also all in Arabic. At the end of my conversation with the fifth prosecutor, he produced a hard copy of a report and asked me to sign it, but I refused, citing an inability to read and understand Arabic.
The second trip to the Public Prosecution office, three days later, I faced a prosecutor who spoke English. But at the end of our conversation, he produced yet again a report in Arabic. At this meeting, I found out that I had to prove my innocence on my own. I was told that my accusers had witnesses and that I would have to produce my own witnesses in court.
But in the subsequent four days, between my second appearance at the Public Prosecution’s office and the court, I was not provided with any means to prepare my defense. I had no lawyer. No contact at the embassy. None of my cellmates had any lawyers representing them as far as I knew, nor did they have any embassy representative working on their behalf. The police did not provide any means for me to contact any witnesses.
The only contact I was granted with the outside world entailed Sunday afternoon visits and a five-minute phone call every evening. However, the phone calls were at the whim of the wardens on duty. During my entire 12-day stay in jail, we were able to avail ourselves of the five-minute phone call just one evening—Thursday, May 9, after my arraignment.
At the arraignment itself, I was not given an interpreter, let alone a lawyer. After some exchanges in Arabic between the official from Al Rayyan jail, the judge and the third person in the room, I was given another court date two weeks down the road and sent back to jail.
I soon learned that the to-and-fro pattern of arraignment, rescheduling of arraignment, and return to jail, arraignment, rescheduling of arraignment, and return to jail, was THE routine.
Pretty much every long-term inmate – those who had been there for over a couple of months – had simply been going through this routine with no indication of how they could break this cycle.
Some said they were innocent of the crime they had been accused of, which ranged from minor theft to murder. Two of them had endured this routine for almost three years, and still had no clear idea how or when the cycle would be broken.
When I was in court, what struck me was the manner in which the three in the room spoke to each other and ignored me completely. You would have thought I wasn’t even in the room, and almost like I didn’t even exist.
I was left to conclude that not only did I – and the rest of the Nepalese in jail – have to prove my innocence by myself, without the help of a lawyer or my diplomatic mission, but also by producing witnesses I didn’t have any means of contacting, by arguing for my innocence in a language I didn’t speak, and, most absurdly, by not even being given the opportunity to be directly involved in the process!
To improve on the situation, what would help greatly is firstly, if the kafala system were abolished. That would provide considerable freedom to both blue- and white-color workers in Qatar, preventing most of them from falling victim to the whims of their employer as they often do in Qatar.
Secondly, provide better training of law enforcement officers and empower them to ignore “wasta.” Thirdly, provide more rights to semi- and un-skilled labourers, such as the ability to unionize and collectively bargain, which again would reduce the chances of them, amongst a slew of other things, falling prey to false accusations, leading to incarceration.
And finally, if being tried in a court of law, provide mother-tongue language interpreter and translator, and legal assistance to those who cannot afford it. Taking such steps would go a long way in showing the world is serious about protecting the human rights of its residents.