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Overcrowding at Qatar’s main deportation center is creating “a hostile and tense atmosphere among the detainees” and making it difficult to maintain hygienic and safety standards, Qatar’s leading human rights organization has said.

According to previous estimates, some 1,100 men and 300 women are being held at the deportation center, which is also referred to as the Search and Follow-up Department and located off Salwa Road near the Industrial Area.

In its latest annual report, which also touched on gender equality as well as access to health care and education, among other topics, Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) referenced prison conditions.

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MOI/Facebook

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It highlighted a fire that killed five detainees in September 2014.

At the time, the Ministry of the Interior said that it was investigating the fire, but has not issued any further public statements about the incident.

A Nepal newspaper reported however that two of the deceased individuals were nationals of the Himalayan country and had been “charred to death.”

The US government has said prison and detention centers in Qatar “generally met international standards” and provide clean sanitation facilities, potable water and access to adequate medical care to detainees.

François Crépeau

Peter Kovessy

François Crépeau

However, François Crépeau – the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants – called the deportation center “overcrowded and unsanitary” in a report that followed his 2013 visit to Qatar.

He found that:

“The migrants lacked sheets, a change of clothes, soap and other hygienic products. Several migrants were sleeping on mattresses on the floor in the corridors.”

In its report, which was released last month, the NHRC recommended that Qatar’s deportation center be expanded and its health and safety systems strengthened.

Separately, the government-backed organization has also urged authorities to amend several laws that would cause fewer people to be thrown in jail in the first place.

The NHRC said such moves would strengthen the country’s human rights record and help bring Qatar in line with international norms.

Investigative tools and sanctions

Under Qatar laws, the public prosecution can hold an individual if there’s enough evidence to suggest he or she committed a crime that’s punishable by more than six months in jail.

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The authorities held 3,507 people under this type of “precautionary detention” in the first five months of 2014, according to the NHRC. The organization said its frequent use is problematic:

“Precautionary detention is considered in some cases a punishment of its own … despite the fact that the conviction has yet to be proven (in court),” the report said, calling on authorities to decrease their use of the legal procedure.

Separately, the NHRC also said it observed an increase in the number of people detained for issuing bounced checks, including one individual who was sentenced to more than 47 years in prison.

As in many other Gulf states, Qatar imposes stiff penalties on those who dodge debts of fail to repay loans. Sanctions for a single bounced check ranges from a prison term of three months to three years, and/or a fine of around QR3,000.

While the NHRC said there is a need to protect society from economic crimes, it noted that international standards prohibit detaining individuals because they’re unable to fulfill their contractual obligations and says new regulations are needed.

Combating abuse

The NHRC report also highlighted certain areas in which Qatar was performing well, noting that among the 1,609 complaints it received in 2014, none were related to religious discrimination or harassment, nor limits on freedom of opinion and expression.

“Qatar is considered an open place for visits by international human rights organizations, and independent researchers work in total freedom in the country on human rights related studies and research,” the report said.

However, it also raised issues that have drawn repeated criticism from international human rights organizations in recent years, such as the poor living and working conditions of construction laborers and abuses of domestic workers.

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Its recommendations echo those frequently made by advocacy organizations, such as making it easier for low-income expats to pursue court cases against their employers.

This could be done by reducing or scrapping the fees plaintiffs must pay for expert studies.

The NHRC also urged the government to include domestic workers under the country’s labor laws so that they receive the same legal safeguards as other foreign employees.

Blacklisting companies

Qatar has made several efforts in recent years to better protect low-income expats from abusive employers. For example, the government introduced multilingual complaint kiosks last year and has increased the number of labor inspectors.

Authorities have also said they’re cracking down on companies that mistreat their employers. One sanction includes “blacklisting” these firms so that they are temporarily unable to sponsor additional expats.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs hit 807 companies with this penalty in the first half of 2015.

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However, in some cases this has had the side effect of imposing additional hardships for some expats, the NHRC noted.

It said that some foreign workers have arrived in Qatar just as their would-be employer’s commercial registration is frozen by the Ministry of Interior.

Unable to work at the job for which they were hired and unwilling to go home because they’ve taken out large debts to secure employment in Qatar, many of these individuals feel compelled to seek out illegal employment in the Gulf country, the NHRC said.

Working for an employer other than one’s sponsor or without a valid Qatar ID leaves expats at risk of arrest and without legal recourse if they are not paid or mistreated by their supervisors.

The NHRC recommended that the MOI makes it easier for expats caught in this situation to transfer their sponsorship to another employer.

Thoughts?

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Recent proposed changes to a law governing the operations of Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) only serve to highlight deficiencies within the organization, a local legal expert has said.

This week, Qatar’s Advisory (Shura) Council approved amendments to draft legislation that affirm “the (NHRC) has complete stability in practicing its activities regarding human rights,” according to Al Raya.

Speaking to Doha News, former Qatari justice minister and practicing criminal attorney Dr. Najeeb Al Nuaimi slammed the amendment, saying that the wording was confusing and had no legal interpretation or definition.

He particularly criticized the use of the word “stability,” saying: “Not using the word ‘independence’ (casts) doubt that (NHRC) is really not independent.”

Government influence

The NHRC was established in 2002 to protect and promote human rights in Qatar.

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Chantelle D'mello / Doha News

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In previous years, it has issued reports criticizing the government’s sponsorship (kafala) system and calling for its improvement.

It has also urged implementing more restrictions on senior government officials to guarantee their transparency and monitor their performance, and called for a law to govern Qatar’s first legislative elections in 2013 (which ultimately didn’t take place).

But the body has faced criticism before for its lack of effectiveness, in part due to the funding it receives from the government and its organizational structure.

Currently, the NHRC consists of 11 members, according to its website.

Law No. 17 of the year 2010 states that the committee must be comprised of “no less than” seven civil society representatives who are experienced human rights advocates, and one representative each from four government bodies, including the ministries of Interior (MOI), Foreign Affairs and Labor and Social Affairs.

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UAA Justice Center For Students

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This week, the Advisory Council said it was also considering changing the composition of the NHRC by adding a representative from the Ministry of Justice to fill the seat vacated by the Supreme Council For Family Affairs, which was dissolved last year.

That means if the legislation is approved, the new law would increase the number of ministries represented in the NHRC to five.

Al Nuaimi criticized this move, saying it would give the government even more power to interfere in the committee’s decisions:

“(The NHRC) should represent civil society, not the government….there is not even one human rights lawyer in this committee,” he said.

”How can the Interior Ministry be a member in a Human Rights committee, when it’s responsible for arresting human rights activists in Qatar?” he asked.

Other amendments that would be added to the legislation would include a provision that NHRC members not be subjected to any legal investigation or disciplinary action for expressing their opinions, and that they not be punished for giving statements in front of the rights group’s committees or sub-committees.

Additionally, under the draft law, authorities would not be allowed to enter or search any of the NHRC’s offices without a court order and the presence of the public prosecutor, unless one of its members is caught performing an illegal act.

According to Al Nuaimi, these amendments only reiterate rights that are already afforded to residents of Qatar.

The attorney, who defended Qatari poet Mohammed Rashid al-Ajami (Ibn Al-Dheeb) following the uploading of some of his critical poetry onto YouTube, continued:

These are part of the “general rules that (already exist) in our legal system,” he said, adding that people should not be arrested or charged for expressing their opinions.

“The reality is we have no human rights committee,” Al Nuaimi concluded.

Thoughts?

As the Eid holidays pass and Qatar returns to business as usual, recommendations made by the country’s National Human Rights Committee are once again in the spotlight.

This week, local media reports are honing in on an NHRC report released in May that calls for a law governing Qatar’s first legislative elections, which are to be held in 2013. 

The watchdog group’s 2011 annual report also delves into procedures that are already on the books.

It criticizes, for example, a new law issued by the Emir governing the establishment of religious centers as too restrictive, adding it grants too much authority to the Minister of Endowment and Islamic Affairs.

NHRC also recommended that ministers and senior government officials:

  • Disclose their personal assets in the interest of transparency;
  • Be monitored by the Administrative Control and Transparency Authority, a recently established anti-corruption body;
  • And not be allowed to own businesses.

Read the full report below.

Thoughts?