68 year old Australian national Joseph Sarlak may spend the rest of his life in a Qatari prison after a local partner allegedly embezzled his company’s funds, and Australians are voicing their anger
In 2004, Queensland native Joseph Sarlak opened Clearspan Technology in Qatar. According to the investment rules at the time, Sarlak needed to appoint a local partner who would legally have 100% ownership of the company. It was unavoidable; so Joseph selected Sheikh Khalid Fahad Mohammed Saud Al Thani, a member of the Royal Family, and someone he thought worthy of his complete trust.
However, when Sheikh Khalid began to experience personal financial troubles, according to Sarlak, he did not hesitate to pillage the company’s accounts, and divert responsibility for the embezzlement to Joseph. Soon after, Joseph was arrested for company cheques that were returned for insufficient funds and charged with bouncing the cheques He has already been sentenced to about 7 years, and more bounced cheque cases are in the pipeline. In a particularly brazen act of hypocrisy, Sheikh Khalid has even opened a new case against him for “cheating the company”. As a result of these multiple cases, Joseph is essentially facing the rest of his life in jail. Meanwhile, Clearspan Technology, the company he founded and managed, continues to operate under the very man who allegedly pilfered its accounts.
Detained in Dubai, the renowned advocacy group, first released news of Joseph’s plight several months ago, and the story has sparked outrage among his fellow Australians. The organisation reports that they have received over 200 calls from supportive Aussies asking what they can do to help Joseph come home.
Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai & Detained in Doha, and familiar face in international media as a leading legal expert on the Middle East, herself an Aussie, has taken up Joseph’s case. Working closely with the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Ms Stirling, who has been at the forefront of Sarlak’s fight for freedom says, “Australians are usually very active players when a sad case like Sarlak's comes up. I am not surprised to have received so many calls of support for Joe. Most of the callers just wanted to pass on their good wishes to Joe and our team and to say they won't be traveling to Doha for the World Cup in 2022 if he remains imprisoned. The last case we received as many calls was for Australian Scott Richards, who was jailed in the UAE for sharing a charity on facebook. Australians are seeing more and more that investing, working or visiting Middle Eastern countries can pose a huge threat. The legal systems have not been modernised to account for the growing number of foreign visitors. This is a recipe for grand scale violations.”
Already an elderly man with a dire medical condition, and with each new bounced cheque resulting in an automatic three year sentence; without intervention Joseph will be lucky if he lives to see his release. He is suffering from heart disease, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, eyesight problems, hernia, torn bicep tendon & arthritis. He has struggled to obtain necessary medical assistance and his health is deteriorating.
“Joseph calls me whenever he can.” Stirling says, “He has a lot of faith and hope for his freedom, praying that when someone listens, they will review his cases and see the injustice. Sometimes he sounds hopeful, other times he sounds broken. It's a rollercoaster of emotions when one has been jailed after a false allegation. It's much easier for prisoners to accept, when they have actually committed a crime but Joseph is being punished unfairly, is becoming increasingly ill and has been hospitalised several times with heart related issues. If the Australian government does not intervene and assist Jo, his family fears he will die behind bars in Doha.”
Stirling said that with enough public outcry, she believes the Qatari government will respond positively. “I fully expect that the relevant authorities in Qatar will review Sarlak's case and ultimately free him, if there is enough public pressure.” Even after a decade dealing with similar cases, Radha admits Sarlak’s plight has touched a nerve. “I've told Joe to hang in there and that we are all looking forward to catching up with him in Queensland. In this line of work, it is impossible not to share a bond with someone who is quite helpless, totally depending on the interest of others to save their lives. Joe has already been terribly mistreated and systematically victimised. His release is long overdue”.
Stirling worked with Australian Parliament to ensure sufficient protections for citizens against extradition to the Middle East, she says, precisely because the endemic flaws in the judicial systems leave foreigners vulnerable.
“The government of Australia has been active in assisting foreigners in special situations abroad and I think this one qualifies. With the World Cup approaching in 2022, Qatar should be mindful to ensure that foreigners are not being unfairly detained. They simply cannot risk the public backlash growing over the Sarlak case. Qatar is making steps towards preserving human rights while other Middle Eastern countries are failing, but all of these steps will be negated if the country keeps Joseph Sarlak in prison. Without intervention, Qatar will see, just as the UAE has seen, that jailing innocent foreigners leads to a loss of tourism and investment.”
Stirling has written to Australia's Ambassador to Qatar, H.E. Axel Wabenhorst and Qatar's Ambassador to Australia, H.E. Mr. Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa and is awaiting response.