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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.

The process

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.

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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.

A routine

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!

Solutions

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.

Credit: Photo for illustrative purposes only by Matti Mattila and Aleksander Karlsen

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It’s been nearly a month since former Qatar Academy teacher Dorje Gurung hastily departed from Qatar.

The 42-year-old, who was fired from his job in April, was subsequently jailed for allegedly insulting Islam in an argument with his students and spent 11 nights in a cell at the Al Rayyan police station. On May 12, he was released without explanation and allowed to travel to his home country of Nepal.

Since returning to the land that he left 25 years ago, Gurung has been tackling long-held goals of helping his people with renewed purpose.

Fundraiser

“Now that I’m back in Nepal and free, I want to help improve the future of children of Nepal,” he explained in a Youtube video about an upcoming project.

“I hope to work on issues related to social justice and equality,” he added in an interview with Doha News about his ordeal and his plans for the future.

In that vein, Gurung is holding a fundraising campaign to bolster a school in the district of Sindhupalchowk, just outside the capital of Kathmandu. According to the campaign’s website:

Like most government schools in Nepal, (the school) has very poor infrastructure, lacks resources and trained teachers. The dropout rate is alarmingly high and the exam pass rate very low.

The campaign, called “Education is Freedom-Nepal”, has raised some $17,000 so far, but still has a ways to go to reach its goal of $51k.

The money will be used for several onsite projects, including building a playground; updating teaching methods, particularly in the field of science, as well as adding English language classes; building a fishery on campus to support local jobs and whose profits will go back to the school; constructing a new building with more classrooms; and shoring up the school library, among other things.

Appreciated support

Gurung, who has worked in Malawi, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Norway, Australia, Hong Kong and New Mexico, credits his prompt release from Qatari jail to vocal support from the international community, who within days gathered some 13,000 signatures in an online petition demanding his release.

“This is cliche, but it’s only when you lose your freedom (that) you come to appreciate its value,” Gurung told Doha News. He continued:

“If it hadn’t been for all the friends and colleagues from all over the world that I had met during the course of my education, and teaching, I would still be in jail. A lot of the people in that jail, I believe, are still there because they don’t have people outside to help them secure their freedom.”

As for the children of Nepal, he said he believes education will help them achieve their own kind of freedom, from poverty and a life of difficult choices.

“For instance, (I want) to help provide quality education to kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds, kids who come from the kind of background I came from – so that they don’t end up in places like the Gulf as a migrant laborer,” he said

Notably, though he spent his first night in prison alone, Gurung shared a cell with 10 Nepalese expats for the remainder of his time there.

Prison experience

During the day, the main entrance to the prison block was locked, but the cells that spanned two floors and held some 250 prisoners remained unlocked, except at sporadic times, Gurung explained.

When the teacher first returned from the Public Prosecutor’s office on May 2, his future roommates, all construction workers, invited him to stay with them. Many cells were organized by nationality, he added.

Inmates, some of whom said they’d been there for two years, faced a variety of charges, including murder, theft and drinking. That everyone was free to mingle during the day bothered him initially, he admitted.

“But after about four to five days, I noticed that there was hardly any violence of any kind,” he said. And the food was “surprisingly” ok, with prisoners getting three meals a day, including lots of fruit and yogurt. Treatment at the prison was also decent, with “hardly any abuse from the wardens,” Gurung said.

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Though his living conditions were not intolerable, the teacher said adapting to them was a “surreal experience.” During his time there, Gurung would spend much of his day trying to keep his mind off of his predicament by reading books that friends dropped off.

But he still couldn’t help asking himself:

“‘How did it come to that? How did it come to that?’ And of course I worried a great deal about my parents and how they would take it.”

Gurung’s prison experience both started and ended abruptly.

It began with a phone call asking him to come into the station to discuss an unspecified matter (he thought it was unpaid parking tickets), and escalated when Gurung was told to hand over his belt, mobile phone and other belongings.

It ended just as suddenly. On his blog, he wrote:

When freedom came, the afternoon of Sunday, May 12, I wasn’t even expecting it. I was unaware of all the frantic activities taking place around the world to get me out. As a matter of fact, just that morning, I had done my laundry–by hand, in the bathroom, in a bucket!

When the “Captain” entered our room saying, “I bring good news. You go out!” I had to ask one of an Arab-speaking Nepalese to confirm what I understood he was saying. “Yes! You are free,” came the response.

To this day, the teacher said he has not been given a reason for why the charges against him were dropped.

Why they were filed in the first place remains another uncomfortable question.

Racism at work?

Gurung declined to talk about the harassment he faced at Qatar Academy, but friends and colleagues said that during his near-two year stint there, students systematically scoffed at his authority because of his nationality.

The conflict came to a head in late April during an argument with three 12-year-old boys in the school cafeteria, in which they taunted him and poked him, Gurung told friends. In response to the teasing, he said something to the effect of, “How would you like to be stereotyped, i.e. called a terrorist?”

Within days, the teacher was fired – losing out on some five months of salary and end-of-service benefits for the remainder of his two year contract. Two days before he was set to leave Qatar for good, he was  jailed.

After his release, Gurung promised supporters that he was going “to make every effort to make this gift of freedom worth the time and effort you invested in winning it for me.”

The fundraising effort appears to be the first step in that regard.

Thoughts?

Credit: Top photo by World Bank Photo Collection; second photo by Twin Work & Volunteer (for illustrative purposes only)

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The Qatar Academy teacher who was jailed for 10 days on charges of insulting Islam and then released yesterday has left the country and returned home to Nepal.

In a public message, Dorje Gurung thanked supporters for their help:

I still can find no words to thank you enough, words that sufficiently express my own and family’s gratitude, for the gift the thousands of you have given me. The gift of freedom! (Ask any of my friends and colleagues Qatar Academy who received me upon my release yesterday afternoon—I was just a wreck. All I could do was cry and bawl.)

Many who know me well know firstly that I don’t make promises easily, certainly not publicly, and secondly that any promise I make i don’t make lightly. As today is an exceptional day and in appreciation of your incredible thoughts and actions, I’m going make a promise to you all, to my amazing friends, teachers, colleagues, students and well wishers around the world and to myself.

A promise to make every effort to make this gift of freedom worth the time and effort you invested in winning it for me.

Gurung, an internationally renowned educator, was fired from QA last month over remarks made to students and subsequently jailed on charges of insulting Islam, a felony in Qatar.

What happened

According to several colleagues of Gurung’s, he had a history of problems with certain students who did not respect his authority, in part because of his nationality.

The conflict came to a head last month during an argument with three 12-year-old boys in the school cafeteria, in which they taunted him and poked him, Gurung told friends. In response to the teasing, he said something to the effect of, how would you like to be stereotyped, ie called a terrorist?

Within days, the teacher was fired and jailed.

Gurung’s arrest mobilized friends, colleagues and supporters from around the world, who over the weekend gathered some 13,000 signatures in an online petition demanding his release.

UPDATE | May 14, 2013

Gurung’s petition on Change.org generated signatures from people in 168 countries or territories, according to Randall Smith, the organization’s deputy director.

“At the peak more then 450 people were signing per hour and it was one of the most popular petitions on Change.org,” he told Doha News.

The most signatures came from the US, the UK, Nepal and Canada, Australia and Qatar, in that order, he added.

In addition to putting Qatar back in the global spotlight, Gurung’s case also sparked questions among educators here about whether they will face similar repercussions for disciplining students.

Thoughts?

Credit: Photo of Gurung greeting his parents in Nepal by Alka Shrestha/ courtesy of Free Dorje on Tumblr