Spotlight on Qatar human rights: “69 yr old Australian Jo Sarlak phoned me crying from Qatar prison as authorities won’t issue visa to get home” - Radha Stirling, Detained in Dubai
My morning coffee was disturbed by a gut wrenching phone call from Joseph Sarlak this week, whose situation is highlighting endemic human rights abuses in the next country to host FIFA. While countries like the UAE, Saudi and Bahrain have been widely criticised, Qatar has been contrastly praised for human rights improvements, improvements I am simply not seeing.
Jo has tried to be as strong as he could throughout the past three years of (proven) wrongful detention in the obscene conditions of a selection of prisons in Qatar. Joseph is 69 years old now and I can hear his failing health becoming more obvious each time he calls. He has been suffering from a multitude of health problems, but has been deprived of medication and hospital treatment for his conditions. “The pain has become unbearable Radha, it is constant and I find it very hard to breathe. The pain takes all of my attention and death before freedom seems likely”, he told me. “I am in limbo now, in a holding cell. It is pure filth where you wouldn’t house a pig. I can not leave because of a travel ban over a civil case that should not exist because all issues were resolved within the criminal system, but they won’t return me to jail where conditions are slightly better because there are no criminal cases against me.” Jo struggled on to tell me that the apparent civil cases were essentially opened to steal assets that he believes were already handed over.
Joseph Sarlak ventured to Qatar, like many other expats and investors, to pursue opportunities offered to them by locals. He partnered with a Qatari in a company who then used the company as his own personal “cash cow”, wrongly appropriating funds. This left the company unable to pay bills, which lead to cheques bouncing. Bounced cheques are a criminal offense in Qatar and most gulf countries. Sarlak however, had no fraudulent intention and should not have been held responsible for the deeds of his local Qatari business partner.
Unlike the UAE, Qatar protests that circumstances surrounding bounced cheques will be taken into account within the legal system, but in reality, this is not the case, and Jo was jailed for a crime he did not commit. Over the past twelve years, I have dealt with innumerable cases of expats who have been jailed for business crimes for which they had no control over, while in many other cases, a deliberate false allegation has been made against an investor or expat, in order to steal funds from the company. What rings true in such cases, is that the local business partner will almost always succeed in court. Qatar, like other gulf nations, does not have a fair and impartial judicial system and locals will be favoured. This kind of power and influence is known locally as “wasta”.
Jo’s case, and that of Brit Jonathan Nash are very public accounts of the types of abuse that are consistent in Qatar. Our sister organisation “Detained in Doha” is dealing with hundreds of similar cases, as well as of cases where locals are able to abuse the system and deprive mothers of access to their children, not because it’s legal, but simply because they are Qatari and wield more power than their foreign former wife.
The Australian government has been largely slack, they have not responded to several appeal letters and nor has the Qatari government or Ambassador to Australia. The same can be said for the British government in the appalling case of Jonathan Nash. Australia on the other hand, intervened heavily to support Hakeem Alaraibi against Bahrain and Matt Joyce and Marcus Lee in the UAE. The UK went so far as threatening sanctions against the UAE for their citizen Matthew Hedges so why are these countries so quiet when it comes to diplomatic intervention on behalf of their citizens in Qatar?
The solution to Joseph Sarlak’s dilemma is simple, easy, and does not risk any sort of diplomatic rift between Australia and Qatar. Qatar gains nothing by prolonging his trauma, and Australia loses nothing by intervening to bring it to an end.
If Joseph is not released imminently, it is feasible he will die in custody and if the Australian government has not done everything possible for their citizen, they may find themselves on the other end of a wrongful death suit.
Radha Stirling, is founder and CEO of UK / USA based legal and human rights organisation Detained in Dubai, Expert Witness and respected analyst of Middle East Policy.
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