(Beirut) – Qatari state security authorities have imposed indefinite arbitrary travel bans against at least four citizens without a judicial process or a clear legal basis, Human Rights Watch and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) said today. State security forces arrested one of the men in October 2020 after he posted tweets criticizing arbitrary travel bans against himself and others, and he remains in detention.
Human Rights Watch and GCHR interviewed three of the men and sources close to the fourth and reviewed relevant documents for all four, which revealed that state security authorities are applying the travel bans outside of any legal procedure, and in some cases effectively defying court orders. One man also suffered financial sanctions, including freezing of his bank accounts. These arbitrary sanctions have resulted in material and psychological harm to the men involved and their families.
“Imposing indefinite and arbitrary travel bans on citizens stands in stark contrast to the rights-respecting image that Qatari authorities have been working hard to present to the world, especially ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Arbitrary state security actions diminish any confidence that Qatari authorities respect due process.”
A 2003 law that outlines the mandates, objectives, and powers of Qatar’s state security apparatus grants the body extensive and near-unchecked executive powers. Under the law, the state security apparatus reports directly to the emir and has the “unfettered” power to conduct investigations, unless the Emir orders otherwise.
The law prohibits individuals and governmental and nongovernmental groups from concealing information “of whatever nature” that is requested by the president of the state security apparatus or refusing to submit it to him. The law also stipulates that the president of the state security apparatus is prohibited from revealing its activities, and the sources and means of obtaining them, except with the emir’s special permission.
The four men are: Abdullah al-Mohannadi, a businessman whom authorities have banned from travel since 2013; Saud Khalifa al-Thani, a former employee at the Interior Ministry who is contesting a travel ban imposed on him since 2016; Najeeb al-Nueimi, a former justice minister with a travel ban imposed since 2017; and Muhammad al-Sulaiti, a Qatari national and a resident of the United States whom authorities have banned from travel since 2018 and detained since October 2020.
Security forces in civilian clothes detained al-Sulaiti on October 4, 2020, at his home in Doha, a source close to him said, and held him in incommunicado detention for two weeks. Weeks before his arrest, al-Sulaiti had shared on social media an Amnesty International statement detailing the arbitrary travels bans he and other citizens had suffered in Qatar. Amnesty International also said that he posted a poll on his Twitter account, which was suspended after his arrest, to collect data on Qataris arbitrarily banned from travel.
Al-Sulaiti had been living in the United States since 2015, where he owned two businesses. Authorities first arrested him in 2018 at Hamad International Airport as he was preparing to leave the country and arbitrarily detained him without charges for five months, a source close to him said. He has been banned from travel since his release.
The Interior Ministry placed the travel ban on al-Thani in 2016 under an administrative order without explanation. He said that he filed a case at the Court of First Instance challenging the ban on April 1, 2019. The two organizations reviewed court documents, which indicate that the court ruled in his favor, revoking the 2016 travel ban effective May 8, 2019.
However, Al-Thani said that unidentified men arrested him at his home without presenting an arrest warrant that same month. He said they took him to a state security office, where officers interrogated him about a news article about his case, as well as about how he obtained a copy of the document stating which agency issued his 2016 travel ban. State security forces held Al-Thani for 37 days, then freed him without charge. The State Security Bureau issued another travel ban around the same time based on unspecified “state security” grounds.
An appeals court rejected an appeal by al-Thani on December 2, 2021. He remains unable to leave the country, despite his multiple requests to do so for medical reasons.
Qatari authorities detained al-Mohannadi for about three weeks in 2007 after Interior Ministry officers interrogated him for criticizing the ministry’s officials on online platforms. In September 2013, authorities imposed an arbitrary travel ban on al-Mohannadi and froze all his personal and business finances without a court order.
The state security apparatus blocked banks from authorizing his financial actions and barred Hamad International Airport from allowing him to travel through the airport. In November 2018, al-Mohannadi received a text message stating that the travel ban was lifted, but when he tried to travel to Turkey in January 2019 officials at the airport barred him from leaving, telling him that he was still under a state security travel ban.
Dr. al-Nuaimi, justice minister from 1995 until 1997, has been subject to an arbitrary travel ban since 2017. Al-Nuaimi learned of his travel ban in January 2017 in a text message from the General Directorate of Passports and the Office of Public Prosecution with his national ID number. Al-Nuaimi obtained a court order in June 2017, finding that “the justification for the ban had ended” and ruling for “cancellation of the travel ban levelled against the appellant.” However, the authorities continue to bar al-Nuaimi from leaving the country.
Al-Nuaimi had served as a defence lawyer for Mohammad al-Ajami, the poet who was sentenced to life in prison in 2012 for a private recital of a poem criticizing the emir. Al-Ajami was released in March 2016 after a royal pardon.
Article 7 of the State Security Apparatus Law, amended in 2008, authorizes the head of the state security body to prevent a person accused of crimes that fall within the apparatus’s jurisdiction from leaving the country for a maximum of 30 days before being taken before Public Prosecution officials. The ban may be extended by order of the attorney general for a renewable period of six months. The article does not require informing a person affected by a travel ban, or providing the reasons for it, or the underlying evidence, and prescribes no means to legally challenge the decision.
Following an official visit to Qatar in 2019, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated that it was not permitted to visit the state security detention facility, and that the State Security Apparatus Law “does not provide for any judicial oversight over such detention, and the Working Group was informed that in practice, such detention leads to very long periods of deprivation of liberty, in violation of international human rights norms.”
Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Qatar ratified in 2018, everyone has the right to leave any country, including their own. The treaty allows countries to impose restrictions on that right as long as they are provided by law and necessary and proportionate to protect national security, public order, public health, morals, or the rights and freedoms of others.
“Flagrantly ignoring court orders sends the message that security authorities can act however they wish and operate outside the rule of law,” said Khalid Ibrahim, executive director at the Gulf Centre for Human Rights.