With reporting from Riham Sheble
In a rare legal move, three former television executives charged with financial impropriety in Qatar were allowed to address the court and present evidence in their defense during a lower court hearing last week.
Haitham Qudaih, the ex-cost controller at Al Jazeera Children’s Channel, used the opportunity to present reams of receipts, emails and other correspondence that he said proves no money went missing under his watch.
Qudaih told the court that the purchases from which he’s accused of personally profiting were all legitimate business expenses. They include the commercial registration of the television station with the Chamber of Commerce, as well as other employees’ travel and hospitality costs.
The defendant, a Palestinian, is on trial with two colleagues – JCC’s former executive general manager Mahmoud Bouneb, a Tunisian-Canadian, and the station’s former programming director, Moroccan Malika Alouane.
The trio has been unable to work or leave Qatar since being fired from their positions and slapped with a travel ban in September 2011. Charges alleging that approximately QR3.1 million (US$851,460) was mismanaged were formally read out last year when hearings began.
Following last week’s session, the three individuals said they felt “relief” for the first time after being allowed to speak in court “outside the contours of the questions framing and implicating us,” Bouneb told Doha News.
In previous hearings over the past few years, auditors testified that their investigations did not find any evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
Witnesses included those from the Qatar’s State Audit Bureau, as well as accounting firm Ernst & Young, both of whom concluded that none of the three on trial committed any form of embezzlement or “harmed intentionally the channel’s funds.”
However, it found some cases of “administrative misconduct” by Bouneb, such as failing to provide sufficient supporting documentation for travel claims and approving contracts without obtaining the required co-signature of a board member.
In a hearing last December, JCC lawyers challenged those findings and presented a new audit commissioned by a separate company.
A lawyer for the defendants said last week that the witnesses summoned by the prosecution had actually exonerated his clients, according to the defendants.
“I am utterly, 100 percent innocent,” Alouane told Doha News, recounting her comments to the judge. “But for me to even say ‘innocent’ means that I acknowledge the crime. There is no crime.”
Over the last two and a half years, the case has been taking a financial and emotional toll on the trio, as JCC refused to renew their residency permits or grant them the no-objection certificates required under Qatar’s sponsorship laws to seek work with another employer.
This put a financial strain on the defendants and created fresh legal challenges.
However, Alouane and Qudaih said Qatar Foundation – the former owner of the station – recently agreed to renew their residency permits, although they had to pay the fees themselves.
Qudaih said he is relieved, as it means his children will be able to receive medical treatment if they ever need it, but added that he’s still not sure how he will afford their school fees for the upcoming year.
During last week’s hearing, a judge instructed prosecutors to deal with a request by JCC to bring in two more former JCC employees as defendants.
The trial is set to resume on June 4.
Barring any new delays, the defendants said they are optimistic that the judge may set a date to announce a verdict.