The long-running legal trial against three former Al Jazeera Children’s Channel executives charged with financial mismanagement dragged on this week as a Qatar court widened the scope of its investigation.
At the same time, the foreign minister of Tunisia, where defendant Mahmoud Bouneb hails from, has said that diplomatic negotiations are underway to have the charges dropped, according to media in that country.
Bouneb, a Tunisian-Canadian, was fired from his position as manager of JCC in September 2011, along with 30 senior employees at the channel.
While no reason was given for their termination, Bouneb and his co-defendants were accused of financial impropriety and placed under a travel ban that prevented them from leaving Qatar.
Bouneb appeared before a criminal court for the first time in February 2013 alongside the station’s former director of programming, Malika Alouane – a Moroccan and Bouneb’s wife – and former cost controlling manager Haitham Qudaih, a Palestinian.
Bouneb previously said the three stood accused of mismanaging approximately QR3.1 million (US$851,460) over eight years.
During the ongoing proceedings, auditors testified that they found evidence of administrative misconduct, such as failing to obtain the necessary approvals for some projects.
However, witnesses from both the Qatar National Audit Bureau and accounting firm Ernst & Young cleared the trio of any criminal wrongdoing. E&Y concluded that there was “no way” the accused “committed any embezzlement crimes or harmed intentionally the Channel funds.”
But rather than wrapping up its work nearly 22 months after the trial started, the court appears to be expanding its investigation.
This week, it commissioned a committee of three employees from the state-run Qatar Media Corp. to review 3,000 hours of programming produced under Bouneb’s watch between 2004 and 2011.
The initial allegations of overspending covered only approximately 100 hours of footage, the court previously heard.
The intent is to assess whether JCC – which was owned by Qatar Foundation until the Al Jazeera Media Network acquired it last year – received value for its money or if the defendants overspent the station’s funds producing their programs.
The committee will return to court on Dec. 30 to either present their findings or ask for more time, meaning the case will likely continue on into the new year.
The defendants had expected a verdict to be handed down at a hearing on July 3, but Judge Abdullah Al Emadi instead ordered the value-for-money investigation.
Officials at Qatar Media Corp. did not respond to the court’s request at that time to provide its expertise until this month.
The lawyer representing the defendants has raised several concerns about the committee’s upcoming work, including a potential conflict of interest.
The main one is that the committee members work for Qatar Media Corp., which acts as both a state broadcaster and media regulator here. The chair of the organization is Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, who is also the head of the Al Jazeera Media Network, and whose name appears on the lawsuit against the three defendants on trial.
Additionally, under questioning from the judge, the prosecutor said the taped programs had not been held in his custody, meaning he could not say for certain that they had not been altered.
As the legal proceedings drag on in court, there appears to be some movement on the case through diplomatic channels.
Earlier this month, Tunisian foreign minister Mongi Hamdi came to Doha and met his Qatari counterpart as well as this country’s prime minister.
Upon returning to Tunisia, Hamdi announced that he had negotiated an agreement with Qatari authorities that would lead to the lawsuit against Bouneb being withdrawn, according to Tunisian newspaper Jomhouria.
Additionally, reports said Bouneb would receive the “financial dues” still owed to him by his employer and that his travel ban would be lifted.
The three defendants declined to comment to Doha News on the Tunisian media reports as well as this week’s legal proceedings.