(Beirut, October 5, 2021) – Qatari authorities should ensure a fair trial for a 35-year-old Jordanian man who is appealing a five-year prison sentence for offenses including misuse of funds and bribery, Human Rights Watch and FairSquare said today. The lower court trial of Abdullah Ibhais, which concluded in April 2021, ignored credible allegations that his confession, the basis of the prosecution’s case, was obtained via intimidation and coercion. A third and possibly final session in his appeal hearing is scheduled for October 6.
Ibhais previously was media and communications director for Qatar’s 2022 FIFA World Cup organizers, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, and the case relates to allegations that he sought a bribe for awarding a contract. Ibhais told Human Rights Watch and FairSquare that he believes the charges were in retaliation for his criticism of the handling of a migrant workers’ strike in Qatar in August 2019, which Human Rights Watch and Migrant-Rights.org documented at the time.
“Qatari authorities appear to have robbed Abdullah Ibhais of his right to a fair trial in proceedings that raise serious concerns about Qatar’s justice system,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately investigate allegations that his confession was coerced and whether the Supreme Committee used the justice system to retaliate against an employee for internal criticism.”
Human Rights Watch and FairSquare examined the court judgment and testimony by four witnesses and other case documents. The judgment indicates that Ibhais’s confession was central to his conviction of “bribery,” “violation of the integrity of tenders and profits,” and “intentional damage to public funds,” for which he received a five-year prison sentence and a fine of 150,000 Qatari riyals (US$41,197) on April 29.
The court ignored the defendant’s allegations that Criminal Investigations Department (CID) officers denied him access to legal counsel during his interrogation and coerced him into signing this confession, which his lawyer argued in court should be thrown out.
The analysis of the court documents and testimony suggests that the rest of the evidence against Ibhais is vague, circumstantial, and in some cases contradictory.
The charges against Ibhais and two other defendants – his brother, who lives in Turkey, and another Turkish man – relate to a Supreme Committee tender for social media services. Ibhais told Human Rights Watch and FairSquare that on the morning of November 12, 2019, the Supreme Committee’s Human Resources director called Ibhais to a meeting where six police officers wearing Qatari traditional robes were waiting to speak to him.
The officers refused to say who they were or why they wanted to speak to him, although he later learned they were from the CID. The officers took him to the CID offices in Duhail, in northern Doha, where officers handcuffed him.
During his interrogation that afternoon, Ibhais said, he was denied access to a lawyer. Ibhais said that one officer told him that “we’ll break his leg [the lawyer’s] before he enters this facility” and the officer leading the interview told him, “You don’t get to ask for a lawyer here.” A third officer said, “Either you sign a confession here or we send you to state security, where they know how to get a confession out of you.”
The officers told him that if he signed, he could go home. When Ibhais refused, one of the officers said, “We will keep you there for six months, and nobody will know where you are.” At that point, he said, he agreed to sign.
The short confession said that he had awarded a Supreme Committee tender to a Turkish bidder in return for Turkish citizenship. He said he told the officer that the confession made no sense because the Supreme Committee hadn’t accepted any of the bids and that he had proof that all bids were rejected.
After signing the confession, he said, the officers drove him home, told him to sign a consent form to search his house, and confiscated phones, laptops, and tablets. They did not let him see his wife or children, then they took him to the CID offices in Duhail, where they placed him in a six-by-four meter cell with 12 to 14 other detainees.
The following morning, he said, police took him to the state security prosecutor, where he was again interviewed and denied access to a lawyer or permission to call his wife. Ibhais said that three men from the state security prosecutor’s office interviewed him that afternoon. One of the men said, “Do you think you are in an American movie? This is state security. You answer yes or no, and that’s it.” The prosecutor read out the confession and asked him to confirm that it was his.
He said that it was but that he had only signed it because he was pressured to. The prosecutor said that there were further charges against him but that if he confessed to the misuse of public funds, he could be removed from state security custody and have a defense lawyer, he said. He signed the second confession, he said, because he was “horrified by the possibility of a state security prosecution.”
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which visited Qatar in 2019, criticized article 7 of Qatar’s State Security Service Law (No. 5 of 2003), which allows detention for up to six months for vague offenses such as, “activities which are harmful to the security and stability of the state and its relationships with other countries.”
The Working Group noted that it had received “credible allegations of prolonged detention without judicial control and of ill-treatment” at state security detention facilities, which Qatar prevented it from visiting. Human rights organizations have previously documented instances in which confessions have been extracted through torture and ill-treatment in Qatari detention.
Ibhais did not receive any legal assistance until November 21, nine days after his initial arrest.
Ibhais said he finally saw a lawyer hired by his wife on November 21 and was released on December 21, after paying bail of 3,000 Qatari riyals ($824). Before his trial began on January 19, 2021, Ibhais was represented by three lawyers, but none were able to secure copies of the case file or see the evidence against him. Ibhais applied for copies of his case file via the public prosecutor’s online system on July 6, and December 8, 2020, but the public prosecutor refused without explanation. Human Rights Watch and FairSquare have seen documentation of these refusals.
On January 18, Ibhais received an email from the Court of First Instance telling him to attend the first session of his trial the following day. At the time, he had no legal representation, and was compelled to hire a lawyer the same day. His lawyer applied for a copy of his case file on January 19 and received the file shortly after. Hearings were held on January 19, February 2, February 17, and March 4.
At the March 4 session, he said, the judge abruptly terminated proceedings and announced that he would issue a judgment on April 19. Ibhais said he was given no opportunity to address the court. The judge denied a motion from his lawyer to present the defense’s case.
The court found Ibhais guilty of misuse of public funds, bribery, collusion to commit bribery, and causing harm to the Supreme Committee. The court convicted his brother in absentia and acquitted the third defendant, whom Ibhais says he does not know nor has never met.
The court rejected Ibhais’s plea to invalidate the confession on the basis that it was extracted under threat and coercion and during interrogations that denied him the presence of a lawyer. The court said it has full discretion “to decide whether a confession is valid or not at any stage of the investigations” regardless of whether the accused recants the confession in court. The court stated that it was assured of the authenticity of the confession and that it was made voluntarily.
Other aspects of the judgment raise serious concerns. It refers to testimony from nine witnesses, but Ibhais said that only four witnesses appeared in court. The judgment states that Ibhais and his co-defendant intended to “award the tender” to a bidder in return for a bribe, but the court record indicates that three of the witnesses said it was not in Ibhais’s power to do so and described procedures that would have made it impossible for him to decisively influence a tender decision. The court recognized that the tender was not awarded to the company from whom it was alleged that Ibhais had solicited a bribe.
No fair trial is possible when defendants do not have full access to their lawyers or prompt access to the evidence against them, and time and resources to prepare for trial, or if evidence obtained under duress is used to convict them, Human Rights Watch and FairSquare said.
“Sending a key staff member for the World Cup’s Supreme Committee to languish in prison following a grossly unfair trial could cast a dark cloud over the event,” said Nicholas McGeehan, founding director at FairSquare Research and Projects.