FIFA: Ensure Fair Trial of World Cup Whistleblower

FIFA should publicly call on the Qatari authorities to ensure a fair trial for the detained former employee of Qatar’s World Cup organizers, Human Rights Watch and FairSquare said in a letter to FIFA on November 19, 2021.

The employee, Abdullah Ibhais, who is appealing a five-year prison sentence handed down in April 2021 for offenses including bribery and misuse of funds, was taken into custody on November 15. A family member said he has been on hunger strike since his detention.

“Increasingly it appears that Abdullah Ibhais is in jail because of suspicion and paranoia, not any evidence of wrongdoing,” said Nick McGeehan, director of FairSquare. “It is probable he will remain there until FIFA accepts a basic level of responsibility for his well-being and demands that he gets the fair trial that he deserves.”

An analysis of a Qatari police report and witness statements show that the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, Ibhais’s employer and FIFA’s partner in Qatar, handed over highly sensitive and apparently unsubstantiated and vague allegations that Ibhais was engaged in activities aimed at “harming the state or its security.” Ibhais was initially arrested on November 12, 2019, and told Human Rights Watch and FairSquare on September 22 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. This confession, which Ibhais retracted in court, remains the only inculpatory evidence presented against him. 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.

Human Rights Watch and FairSquare wrote to FIFA on October 4, noting that Ibhais believes that it was his internal criticism of the Supreme Committee’s handling of a strike by migrant workers in August 2019 that led to his prosecution and conviction for “bribery,” “violation of the integrity of tenders and profits,” and “intentional damage to public funds.”

FIFA’s only public response to Ibhais’s ordeal, which Ibhais also reported directly to FIFA via its whistleblowing platform on September 21, has been a short statement issued on November 8 stating that “It is FIFA’s position that any person deserves a trial that is fair and where due process is observed and respected.”

On October 25, new detailed allegations appeared in Josimar magazine, including evidence to support Ibhais’s claims. Josimar published excerpts from what it said were internal WhatsApp discussions that included members of the Supreme Committee responding to allegations that a serious workers’ strike in Qatar in August 2019 involved workers from 2022 World Cup stadium construction. In these conversations, Ibhais advised his colleagues and superiors not to gloss over the involvement of Supreme Committee workers in the strike, but rather to accept the fact and immediately remedy the workers’ situation.

“We need to fix it, then do the PR part,” he told his immediate superior. In the weeks after this incident the Supreme Committee instigated the Qatari authorities’ investigation into Ibhais by handing over the report from an internal investigation by the Supreme Committee, which included very serious allegations that were likely to lead to the involvement of Qatar’s State Security agencies.

FairSquare and Human Rights Watch have not seen the internal investigation report, but have reviewed a Qatari Criminal Investigations Directorate report obtained directly from Ibhais dated November 9, 2019. The report summarizes and refers to the contents of a complaint submitted to the directorate by the Supreme Committee in relation to what it describes as “a leak of information” pertaining to a tender for a social media contract. The complaint draws a link between Ibhais and two other people, his brother in Turkey, and a prominent media figure who the report says “is believed to be a Saudi citizen.”

The directorate report says: “They [the Supreme Committee] also suspect other aspects are connected with this issue … which indicated that the latter two have a connection and affairs with the embargo countries.” This a reference to the severing of diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt, which began in June 2017, the source of significant political tension.

The directorate’s report states that this connection with the Saudi national, who the report says had also bid for a separate social media contract, “demonstrates that someone wants to control the social media in all its languages to prepare an action or something that harms the State or its security through the aforementioned social media tenders.”

In view of the heightened regional tensions at the time, there was a foreseeable and serious risk that formally raising such a politically charged allegation with Qatar’s investigating authorities would have grave repercussions for Ibhais, Human Rights Watch and FairSquare said.

Following his initial arrest, both public prosecutors and State Security prosecutors interrogated Ibhais. He said that public prosecutors told him, “Either you sign a confession here or we send you to state security, where they know how to get a confession out of you.” Subsequently, State Security prosecutors told him 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. Ibhais told Human Rights Watch and FairSquare that he signed the second confession because he was “horrified by the possibility of a state security prosecution.”

Neither the Qatari authorities nor the Supreme Committee have publicly produced any evidence of wrongdoing by Ibhais, let alone that he was seeking to “harm the state.”

Analysis of the court judgment indicates that this confession was the cornerstone of the case against Ibhais, and that the prosecution presented no credible supporting evidence that he committed any crime. In his witness statement, the Supreme Committee’s internal investigator, Khalid Al-Kubaisi, acknowledged that its report did not conclude that Ibhais had committed any crimes.

In his witness statement to the court, the police officer charged with investigating the allegations said that he had not investigated the authenticity of the recordings. When asked for details of what his investigation had uncovered in relation to alleged leaks of information attributed to Ibhais, he replied, “I don’t know.” When asked if his investigations found that Ibhais leaked information pertaining to the case at hand, he replied, “No.”

FIFA’s human rights policy stipulates that, “FIFA helps protect those who advocate respect for human rights associated with its activities and is committed to contributing to providing remedy where individuals have been adversely affected by activities associated with FIFA.” Ibhais lodged a complaint through FIFA’s BKMS system, a platform for anyone who believes their rights have been infringed on in relation to work associated with FIFA, on September 21. FIFA issued a formal reply on the same system stating that “we will continue to follow this closely … with a view to ensuring that any trial is fair and that due process is respected.” There was no further communication with Ibhais, and he said that FIFA’s human rights manager stopped responding to his messages on October 5.

FIFA has a close working relationship with the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy and a commercial relationship with an entity chaired and directed by the Supreme Committee’s senior executives. FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 LLC is a limited liability company incorporated in early 2019 by FIFA, which holds 51 percent of the shares, and the Qatar 2022 Local Organising Committee LLC, which holds 49 percent. Hassan Al Thawadi, the Supreme Committee secretary general is the chairman of the joint venture, and Nasser Al-Khater, the assistant secretary general of the Supreme Committee is its CEO.

“If FIFA refuses to step in and advocate for Ibhais to receive a fair trial not based on a coerced confession, it appears that its human rights policy isn’t worth the paper it’s written on,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.