Doha, Qatar – The court of appeal in Qatar has upheld a guilty verdict handed out to a former 2022 FIFA World Cup official for bribery and misuse of funds but reduced his prison sentence from five years to three years.
Abdullah Ibhais, a former media manager at the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (SC), the body delivering next year’s World Cup, was arrested in 2019 and sentenced to five years in April 2021.
He was released pending appeal but was arrested again last month before launching a hunger strike “as a final resort” to clear his name and “demand a fair trial”.
Ibhais, a Jordanian national, claimed he was targeted for speaking out in favour of migrant workers who went on strike in August 2019. The SC, however, rejected those claims and termed them “ludicrous, defamatory, and absolutely false”.
“Misappropriation of state funds is a serious crime in Qatar, and this is reflected in the court’s decision,” said a Qatari official, in a statement sent to Al Jazeera following the appeal hearing on Wednesday.
“The case of Mr Ibhais followed all the proper legal procedures and protocols. Mr Ibhais was convicted following the careful examination of an abundance of strong and credible evidence against him for soliciting bribes to influence the outcome of a state-funded procurement process.”
Ziyad, Ibhais’s brother, told Al Jazeera that the family was “planning to appeal, although we have very little faith in the Qatari so-called legal system”.
Ibhais was not present in the court when the judge upheld the guilty verdict on Wednesday.
His family told Al Jazeera in a statement that Ibhais’s absence was “meant to deprive Abdullah from being seen with the effects of hunger strike apparent on his body … this is a part of the continuous attempts to silence Abdullah”.
SC’s internal investigation
In 2019, the SC launched the investigation after a complaint was received “from a third-party participant in a tender for the award of a contract related to the management of social media platforms on behalf of the SC”.
“The complaint was supported with audio and visual documentary evidence,” the SC statement added.
SC officials told Al Jazeera that following the investigation “a number of SC employees were issued with written warnings” while two, including Ibhais, were suspended.
Ibhais’s family claimed that neither any evidence nor the internal investigation was produced in court hearings, adding that his earlier requests to view documents and charges against him were repeatedly denied.
However, the SC said the evidence and documents were handed over to “relevant public authorities for further investigation” which also marked the stage where “SC’s involvement in the case ended”.
The 2019 migrant workers’ strike
Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers and its human rights record have been under the spotlight since it was awarded the hosting of the 2022 World Cup.
While the Kafala system, which tied down a worker to a private sponsor, was abolished in a landmark ruling last year, workers in the country have still complained of facing problems, including false absconding cases and non-payment of salaries, while attempting to switch employers.
In August 2019, about 5,000 construction workers went on a strike citing unpaid salaries and poor working conditions, including workers who had previously worked on two World Cup stadiums.
While reporting on the strike, Al Jazeera spoke to protesting workers who said that in addition to poor living conditions, they had not been paid for up to four months, the companies had failed to renew their work permits – making their status in Qatar illegal – and were not given the required letters that would allow them to switch employers.
Leaked WhatsApp conversations on an SC “Crisis Comms” group, published by Norwegian website Josimar, showed discussions taking place among SC officials on how to handle media coverage of the strike.
The conversations, confirmed to Al Jazeera to be authentic by the SC, showed Ibhais showing apprehension following suggestions that SC denies any World Cup workers were involved in the strike.
In the group, Ibhais said he visited the workers along with a colleague and confirmed World Cup workers were also affected.
“We need to fix and then do the PR part,” he was seen saying in a separate conversation with Fatima al-Nuaimi, communications executive director at the SC.
In a voice note on the group, Hasan al-Thawadi, secretary-general at the SC, was heard telling the “comms and workers welfare” departments to “come up with a narrative to clarify and explain on how we address this situation, to clarify and explain we have taken steps beyond any other institution, any other organisations to ensure speedy payments for workers”, Josimar reported.
“That needs to be clarified, figure it out, if it’s a delay of a month, then put a narrative on it, put a spin on it,” he was heard saying.
Ibhais claims that the internal investigation launched weeks later was due to his stance on the strike and the affected workers.
His family told Al Jazeera that following the investigation, Ibhais was arrested from the office by state security, adding that he was denied legal assistance while in detention.
“When he asked for a lawyer, he was told ‘we will break the leg of any lawyer who enters this building’,” his family claimed.
However, a Qatari official said Ibhais “received legal advice and representation throughout the process in accordance with Qatar’s laws”.
Ziyad added that “faced with the prospect of not being able to see his family and threatened with force, Ibhais confessed to something he didn’t do”.
“He said he was trying to take bribe in return to awarding a tender but then changed his mind. The tender was not awarded in the end. He’s facing all this for a crime that did not take place.”
Coerced into confessing?
The SC has said Ibhais’s allegations following his conviction and sentencing that “the SC conspired against him because of his views on migrant workers are ludicrous, defamatory, and absolutely false”.
“The SC’s work culture promotes and encourages staff raising issues and grievances, and particularly on the subject in question (Workers’ welfare).”
In a joint statement released earlier this month, Fair Square and Human Rights Watch said that “an analysis of a Qatari police report and witness statements show that the SC handed over highly sensitive and apparently unsubstantiated and vague allegations that Ibhais was engaged in activities aimed at ‘harming the state or its security’.”
The statement added that Ibhais told the two organisations in September that “interrogators used the subsequent initiation of a State Security investigation to coerce him into confessing to the lesser charge of bribery and misuse of state funds”.
“Increasingly it appears that Abdullah Ibhais is in jail because of suspicion and paranoia, not any evidence of wrongdoing,” Nick McGeehan, director of FairSquare, said in a statement.