Zahir Belounis, the French footballer who has been unable to leave Qatar for months amid a dispute over unpaid wages, said he has finally received his exit visa and plans to leave the country with his family imminently.
The 33-year-old, who had played for Al Jaish, had been expecting to receive his travel documents for more than a month, but kept encountering delays.
Speaking to Doha News on Wednesday afternoon, he said, “I’m very happy. Me and my family are very, very happy.”
He declined to speak further on the case for now.
His brother, Mahdi Belounis, said on Twitter that Zahir was scheduled to arrive at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris at 7:30 pm tomorrow evening and passed along his sibling’s appreciation to his supporters:
Message from #zahir : thank you people for everything… If I am out, it's because of your fantactic commitment and support for human rights
— The Frenchies (@2frenchiesblog) November 27, 2013
In 2010, Belounis signed a five-year contract to play with Al Jaish sports club. He was transferred to Al Markhiya in the second half of 2011, at which point he said he stopped being paid. He launched a lawsuit against Al Jaish in February of this year, and said his sponsor would not allow him to leave the country until he drops the case.
For its part, the Qatar Football Association has reportedly said that according to its records, Belounis has received “full compensation” and failed to bring his case to its legal department.
In an interview with Doha News last month, Belounis said he hoped to be able to pursue his legal claim after leaving Qatar. He declined to say how much money he was seeking.
Starting in mid-October, the increasingly depressed athlete – who is here with his wife and two young daughters – said he was told that he would be allowed to go home soon. In anticipation of leaving, he sold off all his furniture, which only added to his frustrations when the exit permit was not immediately presented.
The international media attention on the athlete’s case, among others, have shined a spotlight on Qatar’s sponsorship, or kafala, system, which prevents foreigners from leaving the country without their sponsor’s permission.
Organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have noted that many migrant workers in Qatar find themselves trapped within the country because their employer refuses to issue them exit visas.
Speaking to Doha News last month, Nick McGeehan, an HRW researcher, said:
“We welcome the news that Zahir Belounis will be allowed to leave Qatar, but he is not the only person trapped in the country as a result of the pointless exit visa system, and until Qatar abolishes that system its claims on migrant worker reform cannot be taken seriously.”
The apparent resolution of Belounis’ case comes roughly a month after another French citizen, Stéphane Morello, was granted a long-awaited exit visa.
The football trainer came to Qatar in 2007 to work for the country’s Olympic committee, which hired him out to local football teams. Problems arose in 2009 while he was working for the Al-Shamal sports club, which wanted to change coaches and terminated his contract, but refused to pay the money owed to him under the employment agreement.
He said the Olympic Committee continued to renew his residence permit, even though he formally resigned in 2010 and was not allowed to work or receive an exit visa.
The matter was finally resolved this fall when his sponsorship was transferred to the French embassy and he signed a form acknowledging his debt of four years’ worth of housing costs. The debt – worth an estimated QR1.2 million ($342,325) – was then forgiven by the Qatari government.