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Why Has Qatar Jailed a World Cup Whistleblower? The Brother of Abdullah Ibhais Speaks Out

StoryDecember 15, 2022
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Image Credit: Courtesy of Ziad Ibhais

As the world’s attention turns to the World Cup final on Sunday between Argentina and France, we look at the case of imprisoned World Cup whistleblower Abdullah Ibhais, a former communications director for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup organizers, who has been imprisoned since November 2019. Ibhais, a Jordanian national, was given a five-year sentence in Qatar on what his family says are trumped-up charges after he raised concern over working conditions for migrant workers who’d gone on strike over months of unpaid wages — including workers building stadiums for the games. Ibhais’s sentence was later reduced to three years, but his family recently said in an open letter that he was subjected to torture after he contributed footage to the ITV documentary “Qatar: State of Fear?” Ibhais’s family has also blasted FIFA, calling it complicit in his imprisonment. For more, we speak with Abdullah’s brother Ziad Ibhais and Nick McGeehan, co-director and co-founder of the human rights organization FairSquare, where he advocates for migrant workers.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

As France and Argentina prepare to face off Sunday in the World Cup finals in Qatar, we end today’s show looking at the case of imprisoned World Cup whistleblower Abdullah Ibhais. He is the former communications director for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup organizers, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy. He’s been imprisoned in Qatar since November 2019. His family says he’s been held in solitary confinement and tortured in a Qatari prison. In 2021, Abdullah Ibhais was sentenced to five years in prison on what his family says are trumped-up charges, after he interviewed migrant workers who had gone on strike over months of unpaid wages, including workers building stadiums for the games. His sentence was later reduced to three years. Abdullah Ibhais’s family has blasted the FIFA soccer federation, calling it complicit in Abdullah’s imprisonment.

We’re joined now by Abdullah’s brother Ziad Ibhais and Nick McGeehan, co-director and co-founder of the human rights organization FairSquare, where he advocates for migrant workers. He was previously a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. Nick is joining us from Nice, France. Ziad is joining us from Amman, Jordan.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ziad, let’s begin with you. Tell us about what happened to your brother Abdullah. Talk about his interviewing workers, videoing their conditions in Qatar, and what happened.

ZIAD IBHAIS: Thank you, Amy.

It all started on the 4th of August, 2019, when workers, migrant workers, took to the streets of Doha because of the delayed payments. And, you know, this is not a choice people would go for or opt for in Doha. So, they were desperate. They were four months not paid. They have nothing to sustain them. So they went on the streets.

Of course, it came to the concern of the Supreme Committee, and they started talking about that. Abdullah felt skeptical about what was being said by his fellows in the Department of Workers’ Welfare, and wanted to check by himself. So he went to the strike scene. And there, he met with workers. He found that there is no electricity in the camp. It was in the middle of Doha’s summer; it was on the 4th of August. He found them without enough food, without drinking water and four months not paid. Almost 200 workers were working in the stadiums of the Educational City and Al Bayt Stadium.

So, he went back to his superiors, and he sent these videos and recordings to them to confirm that the situation is not fixed. He was asked by the Supreme Committee’s secretary general, Hassan al-Thawadi, to put out a statement to deny that these people were working in the stadiums of the World Cup. After this, after going on site, Abdullah said, “We can never deny this. It’s better for us to admit this, to fix it, and then to say that we have fixed the situation, we have paid these wages to the workers.” Hassan al-Thawadi thought otherwise, however. They insisted on what he called putting a spin on it, putting a narrative on it, and saying that this has nothing to do with the Supreme Committee.

After that, one month later, an internal investigation started against Abdullah, and then it was handed to the authorities. This investigation raised very serious allegations against Abdullah that he was conspiring with a Saudi partner to put the social media of the World Cup in the hands of what Qatar at that time used to call the blockade states, and for taking a bribe in return of awarding the tender for a Turkish company. So, this raised a concern in the police, and Abdullah was sent to state security police.

He was denied the right to see a lawyer. He was interrogated without a lawyer. And actually, all the interrogation was about, to make him sign a ready-made confession. He was not asked what happened. They told him, “We know what you did. All what you have to keep your safety is to sign this.” He was threatened with six months’ imprisonment without seeing his family or a lawyer. He was threatened with physical violence and torture. And if he didn’t sign, he was told that “We will send you to state security prison, where they know well how to get a confession out of you.” So, Abdullah broke and signed this confession.

After that, 35 days later, he was released on bail. The case stayed for one year untouched. During that one year, he was denied any information to the case. He didn’t know what he’s accused of. We didn’t know what is the case against Abdullah.

After that, it went to three levels of court. All three levels of court refused to look into Abdullah’s retraction of the confession. They refused to investigate this confession. They refused to force the Supreme Committee to present the claimed evidence. The Supreme Committee claimed that they had recordings and videos of Abdullah conspiring with this Saudi guy, but they never presented them in court. It was presented — it was never seen or checked. So, all three courts maintained that they hold to the confession, even if Abdullah retracted it. It was not supported by any kind of physical evidence. And the third court, which took the case, which chose to take the case, on the 7th of November, as the World Cup opening was approaching, Abdullah did not attend. His lawyer did not attend. We were not informed that there is a hearing. All the way, Abdullah got a chance, in the three courts, to defend himself for five minutes. All the chance that his lawyer got in the three courts is five minutes to present his case. And all the time, he was silenced. So, basically, this is a legal facade to a political decision that Abdullah should be silenced and remain in prison.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Nick McGeehan, could you explain how FIFA is directly implicated in what’s happened to Abdullah, and also how his case was brought to your attention, the attention of your organization, FairSquare?

NICK McGEEHAN: Yeah. I mean, FIFA is very heavily implicated in this. As Ziad explained, FIFA’s partners in Qatar are the Supreme Committee, who submitted this police report to the Qatari authorities that ultimately put Abdullah in harm’s way. It’s very clear from the evidence and analysis of the case documents and the judgments that he was subjected to a deeply unfair trial. There’s no evidence against him other than this confession that Ziad discussed. And so, Human Rights Watch and FairSquare were two of the organizations who pressed FIFA to demand that Abdullah get a fair trial — not that they say he should be released, but just that he get a fair trial. And FIFA hasn’t done that, which just seems like an appalling abdication of responsibility on their part.

In terms of how the case came to our attention, Abdullah emailed a lot of people about the case. I believe it was September 2021. I remember immediately getting back in touch with him and having a phone call with him.

And what was remarkable about Abdullah’s story wasn’t just the allegations he had to make, which were explosive, obviously, but the fact that he had so much evidence to support them. What’s interesting about this case is there are two versions of events. There’s Abdullah’s version of events: I’m the victim of a malicious prosecution based on what I did within the Supreme Committee. He provided a lot of evidence to back that up. And there’s the Qatari version of events: He’s guilty of bribery, in relation to some sort of tender. And there’s just no evidence to back that up, and they haven’t produced any.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what are you demanding from the Qatari government? Have you received any response from them at all?

NICK McGEEHAN: No, not really. What you find with the Supreme Committee, which is the World Cup organizers, is they do a lot of briefing behind the scenes. So, whoever is interested in this story, journalists typically, they will go on the phone to them, talking to them. But the Qatari authorities tend not to respond to direct communication, and there’s been no direct communication here. The private briefings are all to the effect that Abdullah is guilty, Abdullah is not to be trusted, Abdullah was no friend of migrant workers, and there’s evidence to support these allegations. But when you look at the court judgment or when you ask anyone to provide some evidence to support the allegations against him, then you find that there is none.

AMY GOODMAN: What evidence do you have, Ziad or Nick, that Abdullah is being tortured? And, Ziad, when did you last speak to him? And what has been the response of the countries that are involved with the FIFA soccer, I mean, responding to what’s happening to him right there in Qatar?

ZIAD IBHAIS: I last spoke to Abdullah on the 5th of December, when I knew the circumstances of his solitary confinement. He told me that he was put in solitary confinement on the 2nd of November, as the World Cup approached. And he was — the solitary confinement was all dark, and the central air conditioning of the prison was directed against him. He was sleep deprived for 96 hours continuously. So, it happened after, after the verdict took place, even before the last verdict. So, if he’s serving his time in prison, what’s the need for this kind of torture, if he’s not to be silenced? Directly after he was taken out of solitary confinement, his case, the next day, was sent to the Court of Cassation without a notice, a prior notice. So, it’s clear that there is an intention to deprive Abdullah from preparing his defense, to deprive him from being in court, and deprive his lawyer from being in court. And these are — these things, these developments, stand for themselves and speak for themselves.

Actually, we tried to reach out to many countries participating, or we thought will be participating, in the World Cup. Most of them did not take Abdullah’s case seriously. There was little concern about his case or about migrant workers, to my understanding. The concern was, is that the tournament has to take place. So, we almost got no replies, except from some federations, like Australia and Norway, at a certain point. These are the only answers we got from countries. Other than that, it was two Norwegian journalists who were detained when they came to see Abdullah on the 15th of November, 2021. This brought the government of Norway into the case. And after detention of the two journalists — they were deported from the country, actually — the Norway government summoned the Qatari ambassador in Norway.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip of a short documentary released by Human Rights Watch featuring migrant workers and their families from Nepal demanding compensation for the abuses and sudden deaths while building and preparing for this year’s World Cup in Qatar. This is Hari, a former migrant worker in Qatar.

HARI: [translated] When I went to Lusail in Qatar, there was nothing. There wasn’t even a single building. Now there are towers everywhere. We built those towers. In the heat, we worked out of compulsion with face covers. We were drenched in sweat. We poured water, sweat, from our shoes. Even in that heat, we worked hard.

My son did not recognize me when I first came from Qatar to Nepal. My son’s aim is to play football, so I went to watch him play for little bit. I met my son only five times in the 14 years I was away. I used to cry and feel bad that I had to stay away from children for work.

AMY GOODMAN: A multicountry investigation by The Guardian reported that between 2010 and 2020, for that decade, almost 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar. Nick, I wanted to ask you, as you look, overall, at this issue, and as the FIFA soccer is going to end on Sunday, no matter who wins, what you think will come of the attention paid to workers’ rights in Qatar? Is Qatar changing its policies, not to mention other nations?

NICK McGEEHAN: Yeah. I mean, on the one hand, there is now this awareness of this problem. I’ve been working on this issue for nearly 20 years, and when I started, nobody really knew about these abuses. No one had heard of the kafala system. And it just wasn’t an issue at all. Qatar has changed that. Qatar has become a lightning rod for focus on this issue and criticism of this issue. And that has led to some changes — on paper, at least. You know, there have been reforms to the kafala system, a legal abolition, in effect.

But, sadly, that hasn’t really been complemented by the necessary political will to make that effective. And as your piece rightly identified, you know, it’s come far too late for all these families who have lost family members in circumstances that have just not been explained to them. So, I tend to look at these tremendous human harms and the appalling impact this had on people like the family of the man in your piece, and I find it hard to draw particular optimism from what we have received —

AMY GOODMAN: Nick, before we go — we only have 10 seconds — I want to ask Ziad: Has the Jordanian government intervened on your brother’s behalf?

ZIAD IBHAIS: No, unfortunately. They just visited him once in prison. And after that, they refrained. They never intervened on the case.

AMY GOODMAN: And when do you expect him to be released?

ZIAD IBHAIS: Well, I hope he will be released soon, because with this pressure, the Qataris might reach an understanding that Abdullah is becoming a burden, and he’s in prison for nothing wrong he did, only for a political decision. And we hope it will be soon.

AMY GOODMAN: Ziad Ibhais, I want to thank you so much for being with us, brother of Abdullah, who’s in prison in Qatar for exposing worker abuses, and Nick McGeehan, co-director and co-founder of the human rights group FairSquare. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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