Browsing 'jail' News

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Earlier this year, Filipina journalist Ana P. Santos visited Qatar to report on how laws that criminalize sexual activity affect the country’s workforce. Here, she examines how expat men are using dating apps to approach women for casual sex, and the price many women pay for accepting their advances.

It was a hot Friday evening in Doha when I downloaded the MeetMe app and created a profile.

One of the men I had interviewed in a labor camp told me that this is where “his colleagues” met women.

On MeetMe, I pretended to be a 26-year-old Filipina who had just moved to Doha and was looking to make new friends.

Immediately, messages from men living in the city flooded my feed. Some were perfunctory greetings with a smiley emoji, but others were more direct.

A lot more direct.

Paying for sex

Instead of asking how I was doing, I was asked, “How much?”

I attempted to “flirt” with one man who was aggressive and persistent.

I coyly asked him what kind of women he liked, did he do this often, and did he always pay. I threw in a line about how I wanted to be the only one.

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

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He said I was asking too many questions. “I only want sex. Not asking 4 marriage,” he replied.

Others were more subtle with their overtures, with one inviting me to join him for “dinner and music in his accommodation.”

His invitation came with a promise. For the pleasure of my company, he would “gift” me QR2,000 since it would be my first time visiting him.

‘Zina’ laws

It had been a while since I had been on a dating app, but I was taken aback by the blatant offers of money for sex.

Unmarried sex may be a crime in Qatar, but that certainly does not stop people from finding it, having it and paying for it, if needed.

Ana P. Santos

Screenshot from conversation on MeetMe

Prostitution is illegal in Qatar and punishable through jail time.

The country also has “zina” laws – the Arabic term for laws that criminalize sex outside of marriage – punish pregnancy out of wedlock, unmarried sex and adultery with imprisonment of up to one year.

However, it has become difficult to monitor how often people in Qatar are tried under these laws because media reporting on the subject has dwindled.

This does not surprise one lawyer in Doha who I spoke to on condition of anonymity.

The lawyer said that he had noticed deliberate efforts within the court system not to call attention to Qatar’s human rights violations – including so-called “love cases” – since being awarded hosting rights to the 2022 World Cup.

In his experience, the courts want to sentence zina offenders and deport them as quickly as possible.

“Qatar does not want to be seen as the country that sends pregnant women to jail,” he told me.

Poor and vulnerable

But the truth is that Qatar does send pregnant women to jail.

Specifically, low-skilled migrant women.

Though they certainly don’t have the monopoly on unmarried sex, they are pretty much the only ones being jailed for it in Qatar because they are easiest to catch.

Many of these women are the target of the men using MeetMe and similar apps.

Often, they are both lonely and make a very low income. This is a dangerous combination when zina laws are applied.

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These women are often persuaded to get a “boyfriend” to help supplement their salaries and provide comfort and friendship.

But if they discover they are pregnant as a result, these woman are often trapped.

While the more wealthy women can afford a trip abroad for an abortion, those on lower incomes cannot, and they can pay a heavy personal price.

Jail visits

In May, I visited two jails, one women’s shelter and one deportation center in Qatar.

Almost all of the women I spoke to who were jailed or being deported for “love cases” were low-skilled migrant women.

This includes Wazilfa, who I first met in Capital Security in Najma. She came out carrying her baby in her arms, wrapped in a blanket and the folds of her sari.

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She eyed us with suspicion, but as soon as my translator explained that we were looking for pregnant women in jail who needed some kind of assistance, her story came tumbling out in a rush of broken Arabic.

Wazilfa, a divorced mother, had met a Bangladeshi man online and he became her boyfriend. They carried on a relationship for almost one year.

Many steamy Friday afternoons ensued, and she got pregnant.

“He told me he loved me,” she said. But he disappeared when she told him she was pregnant.

When Wazilfa began to show, her employer turned her over to the authorities.

She held up a hand and told us to wait while she found a piece of paper and a pen.

When she came back, she held up the paper to the glass wall the separated us. It had a phone number scribbled on it.

“Please call him. Tell him that I will marry him. Just please get me and my baby out of jail,” she begged.

There were many other women like Wazilfa.

Marriage the only way out

Jo, for example, had been dressed in an abaya and taken out of jail for a wedding ceremony that involved nothing more than signing papers.

She did not even speak or look at the man who was the father of her child.

“The trip to the Egyptian Embassy was longer than the wedding ceremony,” she said.

The father had denied paternity, but he could not deny the results of a court-mandated DNA test.

Jo had agreed to marry him to get out of jail.

Then there was Ann, who gave birth in the bathroom of her employer’s home. And a woman who asked to be called V, who was turned in by hospital staff for allegedly trying to have an abortion.

Most men avoid detention

There was a common thread among these women.

They were all domestic workers, they all met their boyfriends online and all of the men had abandoned them once they were told they were going to be fathers.

These men usually avoid detention.

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Jo is unsure, but she thinks her husband was able to avoid jail by marrying her. She no longer speaks to him.

Ann’s boyfriend, meanwhile, had apparently given her a fake name. With the help of her sponsor, she was able to avoid jail. The police traced his real identity through his phone number.

He was in jail for a few days and avoided longer detention time when he married her.

Birth control options

While it seems that sex is easy enough to find in Doha, birth control and other interventions are not, if you are a female domestic worker.

Birth control pills are obtainable over the counter at pharmacies in Qatar,  but these are both relatively expensive and hard to hide from a sponsor.

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Domestic workers would also need permission from their employer to go shopping in a mall alone to buy them – which not all are granted.

Additionally, many of the women I spoke to generally knew little about contraception.

Those who did know about contraceptive pills, for example, did not know where to get them from or which ones to ask for.

Condoms, meanwhile, are bought easily from local stores, but women were iffy about using them and were also worried about these being found by their employers.

As a labor rights advocate I spoke to wryly said, “I’d be amused to find even the most liberal of madames not alarmed by the sight of condoms in her nanny’s drawer.”

Illegal abortions

Because prevention is difficult, many women must instead focus on trying to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

Abortions are illegal in Qatar, but this doesn’t stop people from seeking them out.

On my behalf, my interpreter asked her obstetrician where she would direct a woman who had encountered “a delicate situation” like this.

“Lebanon, for a short ‘holiday,’ ” replied her doctor.

This option is however out of reach for most domestic workers for reasons of cost, and also because they would need to obtain an exit permit from their sponsor.

Ana P. Santos

A Whatsapp chat between Ana and a provider of “abortion pills” to Qatar residents

However, pills that induce medical abortion are sold online specifically to residents of the Gulf.

For $240 paid through Western Union, companies promise to deliver the pills directly to you. The seller promises to walk you through the procedure.

However, that’s more than half the average monthly salary of a domestic worker. Additionally, there is no medical guarantee that the pills are safe to use.

‘Invisible women’

It’s clear that low-paid domestic workers are the real victims of zina laws.

However, calls for their repeal have always been ignored by the Qatari government.

That’s not entirely surprising considering that until recently, domestic workers were not even protected in the Labor Law.

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They are, in many ways, invisible.

Sadly, their invisibility seems to be ingrained in the women themselves, too.

Many seemed resigned to their fate. The idea of questioning the injustice of the zina law and demanding better treatment for themselves seemed like an alien concept.

I asked Ann, the woman who gave birth in her employer’s bathroom, whether she wished something could change about the Qatari system.

I posed the same question to Jo, the woman who wore black for a wedding that took a few minutes and a few signatures.

She said she planned to take her baby back to the Philippines and then hoped to leave and work somewhere in the Gulf.

I prodded a little bit more and asked, “But what about changing this law that makes it a crime to be pregnant and not married?”

Jo didn’t answer.

And Ann simply shrugged her shoulders. “What can we do? That’s just the way things are.”

Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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Updated on July 7 with details of Indian prisoner pardons

Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, has pardoned a number of prisoners today as part of an annual Ramadan tradition across the Gulf.

While official figures have yet to be released, many of the pardoned prisoners typically hail from manpower-rich countries like India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

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The Emir usually pardons inmates twice a year – during Ramadan, and on National Day.

According to officials of various embassies here, those who are granted clemency have often already served a large portion of their sentences, and the act of pardoning them is seen as a way of extending goodwill to Qatar’s expat population.

At least seven Indian prisoners were among those pardoned by the Emir, Gulf Times reported. An unnamed senior Indian Embassy official told the paper the men were serving short sentences, and at least some had been serving up to three years for cases including theft.

Speaking to Doha News today, RK Singh, the deputy chief of commissions at the Indian embassy, said that missions are usually given more information about the freed prisoners some one to two weeks after the official pardons have been handed out.

“We give in a list of names to the Emir…mostly people who have only a few months of their sentence left – some three to five months – but we’re only notified about it in a few weeks’ time, closer to Eid,” he said.

According to a 2013 article in the Peninsula, the Indian embassy is not allowed to recommend pardons for prisoners who hadn’t already served at least half of their jail terms.

As of February 2015, the Indian embassy said some 96 of its nationals were in the Central Prison, and 100 were in the deportation center.

According to DNA India, this is relatively low compared to the Indian incarceration rate in Saudi Arabia (1,534), the UAE (833) and Kuwait (290).

Past pardons

Last year, at least 74 prisoners – 14 Indians, 19 Nepalis and 41 Sri Lankans – convicted of fraud, using or possessing narcotics and sexual abuse, among other things – were pardoned during Ramadan.

While officials at the Nepali embassy had previously hoped that half of their nationals in jail would be released, almost 60 still remained behind bars after National Day.

And in 2013, Sheikh Tamim pardoned at least 36 54 prisoners during Ramadan, including 18 Filipinos, 17 Indians, 14 Nepalis and five Pakistanis.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

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Crimes included immorality, theft, possession of methamphetamine, fraud and unpaid loans. The Gulf Times also reported that nine Filipinas were pardoned during the 2013 National Day.

Last year, embassies reported long processing times before prisoners who were granted clemency could actually leave the country.

Speaking to Doha News during Ramadan at the time, representatives from the Nepali and Sri Lankan embassies confirmed that pardoned compatriots were still at the deportation center awaiting repatriation.

“Right now, all of those released are still in Qatar. They have been left at the deportation camp, waiting. No one has left yet, and I am sure it’s the same situation for everyone who was released at Ramadan,” said an official from the Sri Lankan embassy.

Thoughts?

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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