The activist was ordered to pay a fine of QAR 25,000 before leaving Qatar in August months after being detained, his fine .
Migrant rights activist Malcolm Bidali, who frequently wrote about working conditions in Qatar, has spoken to the media for the first time since his arrest in May.
In an interview with BBC Africa broadcast on Friday, the Kenyan detailed his experience in a Qatari prison, where he was kept in solitary confinement for several weeks on charges of working for a foreign agent.
“Solitary confinement was pretty hard. Nothing really prepares you for it, being alone in a tiny space, confined space,” Bidali told the BBC.
During his time in the Gulf state, the former security guard wrote blog posts under the online pseudonym “Noah Articulates”.
His stories gained significant popularity across social media platforms, pushing hundreds to demand action from the government over the mistreatment of workers in Qatar.
“The company had no regard for the welfare, had no regard for the workers’ living conditions and all that. So they just crammed as much as many [sic] people as they like in a room, like six, eight, ten, twelve,” Bidali explained of his experience with this former employer.
On 29 May, the Qatari Government’s Communications Office [GCO] said the 28-year-old was “formally charged with offences related to payments received by a foreign agent for the creation and distribution of disinformation within the State of Qatar”.
He was then released in August after being ordered to pay a fine of QAR 25,000 before then leaving Qatar.
His arrest attracted the attention of global rights organisations which slammed the move a crackdown on the freedom of expression.
In the interview with BBC Africa Bidali said he subjected to “back-and-forth” interrogation during his detainment and only made it out following visits by the Kenyan embassy in Qatar and officials from the International Labour Organisation [ILO].
“I think that gave me hope and that’s part of why I’m here,” said Bidali, commenting on the support he received from the local and international community.
In the wake of his case, human rights organisations have also called on Qatar to halt what was described as “abusive laws” that aim to “criminalise those who dare to speak up”.
“If the government is serious about protecting human rights ahead of the 2022 World Cup, it must stop using abusive laws to criminalise those who dare to speak up in the country, including about the dire treatment of the very migrant workers making the tournament possible,” a joint statement read.
At the time, Migrant Rights, an organisation in which Bidali frequently wrote for, said the activist was “forcibly disappeared” by authorities on 5 May – a crime under international law – and placed under solitary confinement for 26 days.
Almost two months later, the country’s Supreme Judiciary Council handed down a criminal order stating that Bidali had broadcast and published “false news with the intent of endangering the public system of the state” under Article 6 the cybercrime law, according to rights organisations.
Although the order was issued on 14 July, Malcolm was only made aware of it on 27 July, allowing him only one day to appeal the decision. More importantly, the charges he received did not relate to receipt of payments from foreign agents, but rather to his online activism.
In recent years, Qatar has made substantive reforms, such as dismantling the controversial Kafala system and introducing the minimum wage law. However, experts believe more work is needed to ensure the rights of migrant workers are respected.
Meanwhile, senior ILO officials have pointed towards these reforms as major steps towards solving issues in the country.
In a previous interview with Houtan Homayounpour, a senior official from the ILO, he said authorities should be recognised for the changes they have made in the past years.
“We’ve been very happy to support [the progress in Qatar]. Having said that it is also a fact that the picture is not a rosy picture. There are challenges that still remain. So we look forward to continuing to work with the Qatari authorities and our partners,” Homayounpour told Doha News.
Despite the introduction of historic labour reforms, Bidali told the BBC that workers still have difficulties in approaching the Ministry Of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs [ADLSA].
“People still faced a lot of difficulties even approaching the Ministry of Labour or filing a complaint and all that. The minimum wage, some companies were still not implementing that. So I think, that’s just on paper,” Bidali claimed.
Since winning the bid to host the FIFA World Cup 2022, Qatar has been under a global spotlight for its treatment of migrant workers, specifically those working on sites that are related to the construction of stadiums hosting the major sporting event.
British media has been particularly active in targeting Qatar as the host of the long-anticipated World Cup, releasing reports that have claimed an alarming number of deaths among migrant workers, insisting that they are linked to the construction of stadiums.
Speaking to Doha News at the time, experts said the “deceptive” reporting is part of major Western media propaganda campaign against Qatar.
Responding to a question about calls to boycott the World Cup in Qatar, Bidali said he does not believe boycotting is a solution.
“I don’t think boycotting is a solution because it will result in retaliation and the people who will feel it are the migrant workers. I think what helps is just more cooperation between the government and other players,” he said.
While rights groups have since welcomed news of Bidali’s release, they expressed deep concern over the number of human rights violations that occurred throughout his case “solely from his legitimate human rights activism.”
“While we are relieved that Malcolm Bidali’s ordeal is over and he has finally been able to leave Qatar, he should never have been detained in the first place,” the coalition said in a statement.
“It has been clear all along that he was being penalised for his human rights activism, and this unjust ‘conviction’ for spreading ‘false information’ only confirms that Malcolm’s abduction, forced disappearance, detention, interrogation and hefty fine – all carried out without due process – risk leaving a chilling legacy on freedom of expression in Qatar.”