With reporting from Riham Sheble
After nearly five years in limbo, Stéphane Morello, a French football trainer, has finally obtained an exit permit to leave Qatar, he has told Doha News.
“It is a good day,” he said, when reached by phone today, an hour after receiving his documents.
But while Morello is smiling, at least three other Frenchmen continue to seek their own permissions to leave Qatar, with mixed results.
That includes footballer Zahir Belounis and businessmen Nasser Al-Awartany and Jean-Pierre Marongiu, who reportedly tried to flee Qatar on a kayak earlier this year.
Belounis, who said he has been stuck here since February after filing a lawsuit against Al Jaish over 18 months of unpaid wages, told Doha News today that he is optimistic he’ll be granted his exit visa early next week.
This week’s developments come amid an ongoing charm offensive between the two countries that includes a new marketing partnership between the Qatar Tourism Authority and football club Paris Saint-Germain.
The deal, which was formally announced this week, is thought to be worth roughly $800 million. Additionally, Qatar Railways Co. said this week that it was heading to Paris in November to attract investment and new business partners for this country’s transportation projects.
The movement on these files drew cautious praise from one human rights advocate.
“This positive development hopefully signals Qatar’s intentions to get rid of the exit visa system,” Nick McGeehan, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, told Doha News. “Those who argue for its retention clearly don’t understand the damage it is doing to Qatar’s reputation not to mention the ruinous effects it has on people trapped in Qatar.”
The case of Stéphane Morello
Morello, 52, said he will try to fly to Dubai or Bahrain this weekend to test his exit visa. Assuming it’s valid, he said he will return to France in December with his wife and three youngest children, who attend school in Qatar.
Morello moved to this country in 2007 to work for the Qatar Olympic Committee, which hired him out to local football teams.
His problems arose in January 2009 while working at Al-Shamal sports club. He said the team wanted to change coaches and terminated his contract, but refused to pay the money owed to him under the employment agreement.
Despite formally resigning from the Olympic Committee in 2010, he said his employment permit continued to be renewed even though he was not allowed to work or obtain an exit visa.
Morello cleared a major hurdle earlier this fall when his sponsorship was transferred to the French embassy. However, he was told he could not leave the country until he repaid four years’ worth of housing costs – worth an estimated QR1.2 million ($342,325).
Morello said the matter was resolved when he signed a form acknowledging the debt last week, which was then forgiven by the Qatari government in full.
The coach, who said he still plans to sue the Olympic Committee over unpaid wages, added that he is experiencing mixed emotions:
“I am free. I can leave the country and move around (like) a normal human being. But I continue to think – they took me prisoner here for five years. They don’t want to recognize that.”
Speaking separately to Doha News on Thursday, the 33-year-old French footballer said there were “just a few details” that needed to be sorted before he would obtain a promised exit visa.
Specifically, he said he still needed to submit a copy of the agreement that states the termination of his contract.
“I’m trying to be strong … (but) it is very difficult,” he said, adding that he was optimistic he would receive permission to leave Qatar by early next week.
Belounis signed a five-year contract in 2010 that saw him play for Al Jaish sports club. Problems arose when in the second half of 2011, when he was transferred to Al Markhiya, which he said stopped paying his wages.
He sued, and was told he would not be granted an exit visa unless he abandoned his legal claims.
Now, however, Belounis said he hopes to be able to leave Qatar while his case is still before the courts, although he said he is no longer focused on the lawsuit.
“I don’t think about the case. Just about my family,” he said, declining to say how much money he was seeking.
Belounis, who is living in Qatar with his wife and two young daughters, has already sold off his furniture in anticipation of his move.
Meanwhile, a third French citizen was back in court this week on fraud-related charges and was remanded in custody.
Jean-Pierre Marongiu is accused of issuing checks on behalf of his joint business venture in Qatar without the required co-signature of his business partner or adequate funds in the company’s account, according to one of his supporters, Yves-Marie Pendeliau.
On Wednesday, a judge dropped one of the charges after Marongiu repaid the amount of the bad checks, a spokesman for his lawyer, Mubarak Johar El-Ali, confirmed. He would not specify the amount repaid or provide any other details about the hearing. He did acknowledge, however, that Marongiu still faced separate charges related to bad checks.
The French citizen’s legal woes deepened earlier this year when he allegedly fled Qatar without permission by boat and landed in Bahrain, where authorities returned him here.
The status of that case is unclear. Pendeliau said a fine was paid as a penalty, which should have resolved the matter.
According to his supporters, Marongiu has been on a hunger strike for more than four weeks. That claim was called into question this week by the French government, whose embassy officials have met with Marongiu in prison on several occasions.
“During these visits we were able to verify that his health did not appear to be in danger,” Romain Nadal, a spokesperson for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Wednesday, according to an official translation of his remarks.
When viewed in court by Doha News earlier this week, Marongiu was able to stand by himself, and had full cheeks and tan skin, despite reports that he had been subsisting on water and tea for the past month.
At least one other French citizen is also in Qatar and unable to leave.
Nasser Al-Awartany recently said in a meeting attended by Doha News that he came to Qatar and invested several thousand dollars into a business he later learned was mortgaged to the bank.
He launched a lawsuit and subsequently encountered challenges obtaining an exit visa.
French Foreign Affairs official Nadal also addressed Al-Awartany’s case:
“It relates to a dispute between two business associates. Since they both filed a complaint against each other, the case was brought before the Qatari courts. Qatar’s minister of foreign affairs indicated on October 27 to our ambassador that he hoped that a solution could be found quickly so that an exit visa could be granted, while the judicial process is continuing to follow its course in the Qatari courts.”
Speaking this week to Doha News, French ambassador Jean-Christophe Peaucelle said the embassy was pleased with the progress made, but cautioned against drawing parallels between the cases beyond the fact that they all involves French citizens living in this country.
“We work a lot with the Qatari authorities to solve these cases, which are all different from one another. I see a lot of goodwill from the Qatari authorities and I hope these cases can be solved in a fair way as quickly as possible.”