Updated: Two British-Nepali human rights advocates disappear in Qatar
Updated at 8pm to include more information about GNRD
A Norwegian human rights organization has said two of its employees who traveled to Qatar to investigate the condition of Nepalese migrant workers have gone missing after complaining about being followed by plainclothes police officers.
The two missing men are 52-year-old Krishna Upadhyaya and 36-year-old Ghimire Gundev, British human rights advocates of Nepali origin who arrived in Qatar last week to conduct research for an upcoming report, the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD) said in a statement.
GNRD said the men never boarded their Aug. 31 flight out of Qatar and that the individuals have not contacted their employer or their family members. The organization is concerned the men are being detained by local police.
If GNRD’s suspicions are correct, the detentions would be a rare move by local security forces here. In Qatar, foreign journalists and human rights activists regularly investigate the living and working conditions of migrants and publicly report their critical findings.
The unusual report of missing advocates has prompted some to question if the men were targeted because of their employer, which has appeared to be sympathetic to the UAE – a nation currently involved in a diplomatic dispute with Qatar.
Nevertheless, officials from other human rights organizations say the possibility of Qatar security services undertaking “forced disappearances” is a serious issue and that the men must be permitted to contact their families and embassies if they are indeed being held in custody.
Upon arriving to Doha in late August, Upadhyaya and Gunde had been coordinating with Nepali embassy officials, and had complained about being followed by plainclothes police officers in Qatar during their stay, GNRD said.
At one point, a Nepali diplomat accompanying the men informed authorities of his status and told police to stop following them, the charity said.
Speaking to Doha News, GNRD said one of the last communications from the men were a pair of text messages Upadhyaya sent on Aug. 30 to a friend in Norway. The first message read:
“Contact Mr. *** (officer from the Nepalese embassy) at the embassy as soon as possible.” The second message, just four minutes later, said: “I am being followed by the police here. Looks like they will give me troubles now”
Upadhyaya and Gundev were scheduled to leave Doha on Sunday, Aug. 31, which is the last time both their relatives and GNRD heard from them. The charity said the British embassy in Doha said Upadhyaya checked out from the Grand Hyatt but did not board his flight.
In response to a request from comment, a UK embassy spokesperson told Doha News that it was aware of reports that the men are missing, “and we are looking into them.”
Meanwhile, a representative of the Nepali embassy confirmed that the men had approached them to work on their report, but said they did not have any further information on their whereabouts.
In separate statements, the families of both men, who have two children each, urged their immediate release.
This was not the first time Upadhyaya had visited Qatar, according to GNRD Chief Executive Manager Evgenia Kondrakhina. She added that she was not sure if Gundev had previously entered the country, but noted he has extensively researched issues involving Nepalese migrants.
Human Rights Watch researcher Nick McGeehan told Doha News that Upadhyaya previously worked for Anti-Slavery International, where he knew him to be a well-respected employee.
However, when asked, McGeehan said that while he knows of GNRD, he’s never had any dealings with the organization.
GNRD was founded in Norway in 2008 and said it has branches in Austria, Belgium, Jordan, Spain, Sudan, Switzerland, the UAE and Zambia.
The organization appears to be very popular on social media, having attracted 1.14 million followers to its Twitter account – almost as many as Amnesty International’s 1.16 million.
However, unlike Amnesty, GNRD does not tweet regularly. Furthermore, many of the Norwegian organization’s followers have not uploaded a profile photo or tweeted themselves.
In part due to these factors, the organization failed to pass muster on Twitter Audit, which assesses credibility scores based on number of tweets, date of the last tweet and ratio of followers to friend.
According to the program, some 1.3 million of the followers of the account are fake, while about 5,677 are real.
However, in a follow-up interview with Doha News, GNRD’s Kondrakhina credited the organization’s large social media presence to its extensive work with youth around the world and rejected the suggestion that most of the accounts were fake.
“Our followers are real,” she said.
Meanwhile, the 2012 and 2013 activity reports posted on GNRD’s website contain lists of statements and presentations made by the organization, as well as events it organized, but no financial information.
Kondrakhina said GNRD is primarily funded by private companies and referred to the firms listed on the organization’s website.
Doha News was not able to find a website or any online mention for several of the companies listed. An image search suggested that the sponsors’ logos are only published online on GNRD’s website and, in two cases, come from stock imagery libraries.
One of the organization’s sponsors, Deeb Consulting, is a UAE-based firm run by Loai Mohammed Deeb – the same name of GNRD’s president.
Additionally, GNRD raised eyebrows late last year when its International Human Rights Rank Indicator ranked the UAE as the 14th-best country in the world for human rights. (The current rankings place the UAE in 12th position. Qatar ranks 92nd.)
However, Kondrakhina said the organization does not receive any funding from the UAE government.
GNRD said it has previously lobbied European politicians to take a stronger stand on migrants’ rights, highlighting the plight of Nepalese workers in Qatar among other cases.
Following promises over the past year by the Qatar government to implement measures aimed at curbing abuses, Kondrakhina said GNRD sent the two men to investigate whether anything had changed for workers in the country.
Kondrakhina said she had no insights into why the two men were apparently targeted by police. She added:
“I cannot answer that … It is normal for human rights experts to go and investigate in certain countries, especially when there is concern (expressed by) international organizations.”
Since it was awarded 2022 World Cup hosting rights nearly four years ago, Qatar has been under intense international scrutiny over the treatment of migrant workers here.
Blue-collar workers, including hundreds of thousands of expats from Nepal, are primarily fueling the nation’s infrastructure boom ahead of the tournament.
So far, it appears that most journalists and rights groups have visited the country and reported on labor issues with few problems.
However, last year, two German broadcasters said they were detained by Qatar police during their stay here.
In October, filmmaker Peter Giesel, 45, and 25-year-old cameraman Robin Ahne entered Qatar on tourist visas to produce a package for Sky Sports Germany on the plight of migrant workers.
Speaking to Doha News, Giesel said he and Ahne spent Oct. 3 speaking with workers near the Nepali embassy and had returned to their hotel room at the Mercure Grand when the police knocked on their door.
Giesel added that the two were taken into custody and interrogated until about midnight, when they were allowed to return to their hotel room to collect their equipment.
But Giesel was not allowed to respond to several missed calls from his wife, who was pregnant at the time. And during their 21 hours in jail, neither man was able to contact anyone for help, including their embassy or family members.
Speaking to the Guardian about the interrogation, the filmmaker said:
“They said they just wanted to talk to us, but it wasn’t clear about what. But the interrogations went on for several hours and then the security police got involved. They were talking about us sparking a riot by talking to the workers … and that’s why we got detained and put in jail.”
The two men were released from jail with the help of the German embassy, who was alerted to their disappearance by Giesel’s wife.
The filmmaker said an official from the Qatar News Agency, where foreign journalists are required to register when coming to Doha, picked them up from jail and invited them to visit the country again.
McGeehan, of Human Rights Watch, said employees of his organization have not been harassed by police in Qatar:
“We’ve always felt secure in Qatar and been assured of our safety by authorities … It’s one of the things that Qatar has done well.”
He added that he hoped the disappearance of the GNRD employees doesn’t indicate a change in the government’s direction.
McGeehan also emphasized that the men should have the right to conduct their research and, if they are being held in custody, be permitted to contact with families and the embassy.
Late on Thursday, Said Boumedouha – the deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme – echoed these sentiments in a statement:
“If the Qatari authorities have detained these men, they must reveal why, where and if any charges are being brought against them. Both must also have access to lawyers of their choice and be protected from torture and other ill-treatment while in custody.
Unless these men are to be charged with an internationally recognizable criminal offence, remanded by a civilian court in a public hearing and brought to trial promptly and fairly, both must be immediately and unconditionally released.”