With reporting from Riham Sheble
Three Filipino men appeared in Qatar’s Court of Appeals on Monday, seeking to overturn their conviction on spying charges – an allegation their home government now vehemently rejects.
“We categorically deny that we are engaged in espionage,” Philippines Foreign Affairs spokesperson Charles Jose said in a statement carried by several media outlets prior to the start of Monday’s hearing. It was that country’s first public comment on the issue since saying it was looking into the allegations over the weekend.
In court this morning, a panel of judges denied the defense’s request for the men – one of whom has been sentenced to death – to be released prior to the appeals court’s ruling. That means the men will remain in custody until their next hearing in October.
The judges did, however, agree to consider a request by the defense to compel the public prosecutor’s office to disclose information about an ongoing financial crimes case involving Qatar Petroleum.
The connection between the two cases was not discussed, but the lead defendant – reported to be a lieutenant in the Philippines state security force – was working as a budgeting and contracting supervisor at an unnamed large state-owned Qatari company.
His two co-defendants are Filipinos working with the Qatar Air Force were sentenced to life in prison.
The details about the charges – which were first published by Al Raya last week – remain unclear.
While some reports suggest they passed along classified information about Qatar’s aircrafts, weapons and members of its armed forces to intelligence officials in the Philippines, others who have followed the case say the charges relate to economic secrets surrounding Qatar’s offshore oil and gas reserves that ended up in the hands of foreign companies.
Lawyers representing the convicted men again declined to be interviewed by Doha News, saying their clients requested that they not discuss the case publicly.
A source close to the trial told Doha News last week that Qatar police and state prosecutors started to look into the men’s activities in 2009 and that the charges concern events that supposedly took place in 2009-10.
Following a three-and-half year investigation into the activities of the men, authorities raided their homes, offices and cars before putting them on trial in a case that’s lasted two years.
The three Filipino men were led into the prisoner’s box wearing civilian clothing by guards on Monday morning. They were not addressed by the court and did not speak during their 15-minute hearing.
A representative from the Philippines embassy in Doha as well as several supporters of the men were also present in the courtroom.
The source close to the case previously said that the defense plans to argue that the lower court never heard evidence proving the convicted men passed along any information or profited from it.
Additionally, he said the defense will assert that procedural errors were made in the men’s arrest and interrogation and that the Filipino men were physically tortured in custody.
While the mens’ lawyer said on Monday that he was prepared to present his arguments, he first requested that the men be freed on their own recognizance, subject to a travel ban, which was turned down.
The lawyer then told the court that the defense has repeatedly requested that the prosecutor produce documents related to a case involving a high-ranking official at QP, and allegations of financial impropriety that he said would exonerate the lead defendant.
The defense team said its previous requests to see documents related to that case, which has not yet been heard in court, were rebuffed by prosecutors on national security grounds.
If the case is so sensitive, the judges should review it privately and see its significance for themselves, the defense team argued.
The judges’ panel said it would “address” the issue with prosecutors and scheduled the next appeal hearing for Oct. 27.