Tunisian journalist Mahmoud Bouneb has been unable to leave Qatar for nearly three years because of a drawn out legal case against him after he was fired from his executive position at Al Jazeera Network. Read more in the Correspondents report ‘Trapped in Qatar’.

In an interview with Correspondents, Bouneb describes the events leading up to his case and the financial and psychological hardships he has faced since the charges that were brought against him in 2011.

Tunisian journalist Mahmoud Bouneb has been unable to leave Qatar for nearly three years because of a drawn out legal case against him after he was fired from his executive position at Al Jazeera Network. Read more in the Correspondents report ‘Trapped in Qatar’.

In an interview with Correspondents, Bouneb describes the events leading up to his case and the financial and psychological hardships he has faced since the charges that were brought against him in 2011.

Mr. Bouneb, your case seems complicated. Can you start by telling us why you went to Qatar?

I came to Qatar in 1999 to work as a media expert at the Office of the Chairman of Board of al-Jazeera Network, after spending 15 years as the head of the Arabic section of the international department at the Swiss Radio and TV Corporation. 

In 2003, the chairman of the board asked me to prepare a study to launch a channel for children within an Arab educational project, initiated by the President of the Board of Directors of Qatar Foundation for Education and Science.

From 2004 and until 2011, I was a board member and Executive General Manager of the channel. Under my administration, the channel received more than 50 Arab and international awards.  But this beautiful dream suddenly turned into a scary nightmare and put my life and the lives of tens of employees on hold.

What happened? 

It all started when I was fired under suspicious and unusual circumstances. On September 27, 2011, all devices in my office, my email, my mobile phone, my international line, and my computer stopped working.   

In the beginning, I thought that there was a technical problem, but my fellow colleagues told me that all other devices in the channel were functioning as usual. 

After a while, I received a call from the Vice President for Administrative Affairs of the Qatar Foundation who informed me that Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, Chairperson of the Board (wife Qatari emir at that time and the mother of Tamim the current emir) decided to fire me and appoint a new administration for the channel.  He also informed me that as of that day I would be prevented from travelling outside Qatar. On that day, I was supposed to travel on a business trip. 

So then what did you do?

I tried with all possible means to communicate with the office of Sheikha Moza and other officials to understand what was going on, but to no avail. All doors were closed in my face!

One month after firing me, I was informed on October 30, 2011, that the administration of al-Jazeera Children’s Channel filed a lawsuit against me and five of my fellow colleagues on charges of embezzlement and abuse of public funds. 

And within six weeks of firing me, the whole administrative team working with me in the channel was fired, in addition to tens of other employees. 

Was there any kind of conflict between you and Sheikha Moza? 

My relationship with Sheikha Moza was a working relationship characterized by mutual respect and appreciation. Despite all the injustice and defamation I was subjected to since the day I was fired, I still say that during the long years of my work with the Qatar Foundation, Sheikha Moza always provided me with her support, backing and confidence. 

The Public Prosecution of Qatar charged you with the seizure of public money and wasting it on the production of television programs. Who stands behind these charges against you?

They are undoubtedly those who masterminded the plot against me and against my colleagues from the beginning, as well as those who stand behind them. 

The case started with a report prepared by the Internal Audit Department of the Qatar Foundation. The chairman of the board of al-Jazeera Children’s Channel attached this report to the accusation against me and my colleagues and sent it to the public prosecutor in October 2011. This report contained nothing but indiscriminate and haphazard accusations against me and my administrative team without any supporting documents. 

Based on this accusation submitted by the al-Jazeera Children’s Channel to the public prosecutor, which is based on the report of the Internal Audit Department of the Qatar Foundation, the public prosecutor commissioned a committee from the Qatari Audit Bureau in December 2011 to verify the charges contained in the internal audit report of the Qatar Foundation and to confirm or refute its content. 

After spending eight months under examination, the auditors did find any wrongdoing or shameful act on my part or on the part of my fellow colleagues in the channel’s administration.

However, the administration of al-Jazeera Children’s Channel refused to accept the findings of the Audit Bureau and challenged them. Thus the public prosecutor commissioned the international Ernest & Young to perform another audit which took almost eight weeks. The report of Ernest & Young confirmed the findings of the Audit Bureau.

National and international audit offices found that you are innocent of the embezzlement, abuse of public funds and abuse of power charges, but the court has indefinitely postponed its verdict. Do you expect the ban on your travel to indefinitely continue or do you think that international pressure will yield positive results?    

Our trial began on February 5, 2013, and we were expecting a verdict on Thursday, June 3, 2014.  However, the court did not issue its verdict and it surprised us when it ordered the formation of tripartite committee composed of the Qatari Public Radio and Television Authority and experts in the production of programs subject of the lawsuit—with the mission of clarifying the technical basis on which the cost of these programs were estimated. 

We asked the court to reverse this initial ruling because the party tasked by the judge to perform the screening is the Qatar Media Foundation (previously the General Authority for Radio and Television) headed by Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, who is at the same time the Chairman of al-Jazeera Network, as well as the Chairman of the Board of Directors of al-Jazeera Children’s Channel since its inception. 

He is also the one who submitted the accusation against me and against five of my colleagues to the Attorney General on October 30, 2011 and he is my direct supervisor. This would strip the commission of impartiality and objectivity, both of which are necessary for the accomplishment of such a mission. 

Despite all these objections and arguments, the court rejected to reverse its initial verdict and decided to address the Qatar Media Foundation to form a technical committee to examine the programs. The court also decided to hold its next session on October 1, 2014 and this means that we will have to spend another summer, the fourth one since the start of the lawsuit, in Qatar.

So, I am staying in Doha and waiting for God’s relief or for a “political” settlement some might say, since this case is intractable for investigators as well as politicians.

The Emir of Qatar has pledged during his visit to Tunisia this past April, to follow-up on your case and to lift the ban on your travel as soon as possible.  Do you believe that the highest authority in Qatar would be unable to keep its promises?

I do not have any doubts that Sheikh Tamim was sincere in his promise to President  Moncef Marzouki and I have no doubt that he knows that I served the State of Qatar for about 15 years during which time I was committed and reliable. He knows that inside the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development I was a victim of fabricated and baseless charges.

Do you see that there are conflicting stances regarding your case taken by the Tunisian diplomacy and the presidency?

I was hoping that President Marzouki would  meet with some members of my family, to at least assure them that the Tunisian state did not, and will never, abandon Mahmoud Bouneb’s case and to tell them that the state is exerting all possible efforts to ensure that he returns to his mother and his family.

However, it seems that there are those who are resentful and envious. They do not want to support me, my family and the support committee for reasons related to their own instantaneous and narrow interests, under the pretext that this might raise the ire of the brothers in Qatar. 

In my opinion, this is stubbornness and it is against the nature of relations between Doha and Tunis. Thus, the stances of some officials in Tunisia and Qatar and their insistence on overlooking justice are very painful. 

How are you living now in Qatar and is there any international pressure demanding your release?

I have been locked in Doha and within the borders of the State of Qatar since September 27, 2011; 34 months since the ban placed on my travel. 

The last time my lawyer filed a request for lifting the ban was during the first week of July 2014 but this request, which is the third of its kind since the start of the lawsuit, was rejected, although we have given assurances that we will stay at the disposal of the judiciary. 

How has your predicament affected your personal life?

I am trying as much as possible to overcome financial and psychological pressures in order to preserve my dignity and my mental fitness.

Three years of my life were wasted in this case, which has brought lots of damage to me and to my family.  My life is on hold and I do not have any source of income to preserve my dignity. I am still living in the house given to me by the Qatar Foundation; otherwise I would now be in the streets without any shelter.

I am being held in Qatar without health care. Al-Jazeera Children’s Channel suspended our health insurance the day they fired us. All of my property is threatened to be put up for sale or confiscation because I am unable to pay the bank loans installments.

This is not to mention the shock suffered by my family and my children because of the rumors, fabrications and deliberate defamation against me, with the aim of tarnishing my reputation and damaging my professional career.