UN rep: Qatar judicial system faces ‘major shortcomings and challenges’

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Adam Bermingham/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

A lack of Qatari judges, among other issues, is making it difficult for Qatar’s judiciary to operate independently and protect the human rights of all residents, a United Nations official has said in a new report following a visit to the country last year.

Currently, many judges who work here operate on temporary contracts and are recruited from other Arab countries – particularly Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan – to make up for the current lack of qualified and interested Qataris.

Gabriela Knaul

Peter Kovessy

Gabriela Knaul

That’s according to Gabriela Knaul, the UN’s special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, who is filing a 22-page report on her findings with the UN’s Human Rights Council in June.

She called the practice of hiring expat judges “far from common” in the rest of the world, as many countries have citizenship requirements for employment in the judiciary.

Knaul said she was not provided with official figures on the number of expat judges working in Qatar.

But she called the current situation problematic, pointing out that unlike their tenured national counterparts, expat judges must have their contracts renewed annually.

“Non-Qatari judges can be dismissed at any time, which renders them extremely vulnerable to pressures from any side, including from the public prosecution, lawyers and the executive,” Knaul said, although she conceded that no specific cases of suspect dismissals have been reported.

For now, she recommended that expat judges be given the same employment guarantees as Qataris.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

UAA Justice Center For Students

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

But in the long-term, she added that the number of non-Qatari judges should be progressively reduced and the judiciary completely nationalized.

Coincidentally, that same message was delivered today by Peninsula columnist Rabia Bin Sabah Al Kuwari:

“Remaining silent about the appointment of non-citizen judges and the reliance on judges from other countries, particularly Arab nations, is something that should stop,” he argued.

In recent years, Qatar has seen some developments that suggest an improved justice system is in the works.

For example, in 2013, compensation packages for judges, prosecutors and judicial assistants were increased in part to motivate more Qataris to enter the country’s legal system.

It will also soon be easier for local residents to pursue a legal education in Qatar. Hamad Bin Khalifa University will launch the first juris doctor postgraduate degree program in the region this fall.

And Qatar University also plans to launch a graduate law program in September. The school will grant a Masters of Law degree to go along with its current Bachelor of Law program.

Villaggio trial delays

In her report, Knaul credited Qatar for allowing her to conduct her investigation as well as, more broadly, coming “a long way in a short time with respect to developing its justice system.”

But she nevertheless concluded that “it faces major shortcomings and challenges, which directly affect the delivery of justice and the realization of human rights.”

Lower criminal court in Doha

Shabina S. Khatri

Lower criminal court in Doha

Specifically, Knaul questioned the independence and impartiality of the court system, highlighting the murky demarcation of powers between the judiciary and executive branches of government.

That leaves the legal system open to political interference, as well as an anecdotal perception that Qataris and foreigners are treated differently under the law, she said.

She also said she was “seriously concerned” about how several recent high-profile cases have been handled, such as the ongoing Villaggio Mall fire appeal.

Knaul said hearings in the slow-moving case are often postponed “without clear and fair justification,” such as when defendants – who were sentenced to prison terms in the earlier criminal trial and placed under a travel ban – fail to show up to court when summoned.

“Such endless postponements are unacceptable,” she said. “The result of the lack of due process followed in this case is to deny victims their right to an effective remedy. It also robs them of the possibility to come to closure with their loss.”

In her list of 37 recommendations, Knaul called on Qatar to take “urgent measures” to prevent delays in court proceedings and avoid postponing hearings unless they can be justified on “reasonable grounds.”

Other suggestions included improving access to the legal system for low-income workers, increasing the number of women in the judiciary, creating codes of conduct for lawyers and prosecutors as well as creating clear, objective and transparent criteria for the hiring of judges so that they are selected solely on merit.

Here’s the full report:

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