With reporting from Riham Sheble
Three Filipino men living and working in Qatar have been convicted of espionage for passing along military and economic secrets to their home government, according to a source close to their trial.
One man, reported to be a lieutenant in the Philippines state security force working as a budgeting and contracting supervisor at large state-owned Qatari company, received the death penalty late last month, while the other two men – technicians working with the Qatar Air Force – were given life sentences in prison.
The man who spoke to Doha News on condition of anonymity said defense lawyers representing the men were planning to appeal the verdict in a hearing scheduled next week. They maintain that the court never heard evidence proving the convicted men passed along any information or profited from it.
Furthermore, the defense will assert that procedural errors were made in the men’s arrest and interrogation. He also said witnesses have come forward saying the Filipino men were physically tortured in custody.
Qatar has accused a handful of foreign nationals of spying in recent years as it fends off cyber attacks on government networks and key energy companies.
This latest case illustrates the interest foreign firms and governments have in Qatar, which is rapidly building up its military as its economic might grows, and the unique vulnerability of a country so reliant on foreign labor that even potentially sensitive senior positions are held by expats.
While details of the charges only came to light this week in a report first published by Al Raya, the source close to the trial said the Qatar police and state prosecutors began to look into the men’s activities in 2009. The charges reportedly relate to events that transpired 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.
When reached by Doha News, the lawyer for the men – Mohsen Thiyab Al Suwaidi – said his clients asked him to not publicly discuss the case.
The men are reportedly accused of providing information to intelligence officials in the Philippines about Qatar’s aircrafts, weaponry, maintenance and servicing records, as well as specific details about the names, ranks and phone numbers of staff members.
Additionally, details about a major Qatari company’s investment projects and upcoming contracts are also alleged to have been leaked.
The main defendant, accused of raking in millions of riyals in return for his spying services, is said to have given copies of project tenders to other companies.
He’s also alleged to have provided maps, internal reports and classified information about the Qatari Air Force base to Filipino officials, as well as recruiting the other two defendants, who worked in the engineering department of the first man’s company and were technicians at the air force base.
It’s not clear what role, if any, the Philippines Embassy in Doha played. No one was picking up the phone at the embassy or at the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Manila on Thursday.
However, the Peninsula reported today that embassy officials have been following the case of the three men and a representative has been attending the hearings.
Espionage in Qatar
This isn’t the first time Qatar has accused a foreign national of spying. A Jordanian journalist was reportedly sentenced to death on espionage charges in 2003, while two Egyptians were rumored to have been sentenced to life in prison in 2010 for spying on behalf of a foreign entity.
However, the most widely known case is that of American John W. Downs, who moved to Qatar in 1996 and was arrested in 2005 while an employee of Qatar Petroleum.
Media reports at the time said he attempted to sell sensitive information about a natural gas project in Qatar to a foreign embassy. However, his lawyer argued that his client had been entrapped by authorities who lured him into commit a crime.
Modern espionage frequently involves cyberattacks on a company or government computer server, such as recent accusations by American authorities that Chinese military officials hacked into several major US companies to steal information.
In Qatar, reported cyber attacks appear to be primarily politically motivated.
In the past, the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) has taken credit for:
- Hijacking Qatar’s .QA domain name and shutting down numerous high-profile websites;
- Taking control of Qatar Foundation’s Twitter and Facebook accounts; and
- Taking control of the Twitter accounts of FIFA and its president, Sepp Blatter, and publishing messages asserting the interntational football organization accepted bribes for awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.
Additionally, the corporate computer systems and website of RasGas, one of the world’s largest liquefied natural gas suppliers, were taken offline by a virus attack in August 2012.
While the SEA cited Qatar’s support of rebels inside Syria as justification for its attack, this country’s growing military and economic assets are also of interest to foreign firms and governments.
In response to growing attacks, Qatar is mulling a new draft cybercrime law, in which local companies operating in “vital sectors” would be required to create a framework to manage information inside their businesses, as well as allocating a budget to pay for the new initiatives.
These sectors may include power grids, oil and gas production, financial transactions, healthcare and government operations.