Belgian Premier Herman Van Rompuy has pledged to do everything possible to get countryman Philippe Bogaert released from Qatar where he is currently appealing a three year prison sentence. Van Rompuy (report in Flemish) claimed that Belgium was doing everything it could for Bogaert “taking into account the limitations that the legal frameworks of both countries impose.” The prison sentence was handed out after several cheques failed to clear which he guaranteed while managing director of a Qatari subsidiary of a Belgian company. Bogaert is not actually in jail at the moment but has been stuck in a Kafkaesque scenario for almost a year unable to leave the country.
Philippe Bogaert is stranded in Doha because his employer’s sponsor refuses to grant him an exit permit to leave the country. Like most Gulf states, Qatar requires foreigners who wish to work in the country to have a local sponsor. However, unlike other Gulf countries, Qatar gives sponsors the right to say whether their employee is allowed to leave the country. Bogaert claims he has been “held hostage” by his sponsor since the company he worked for fell into financial difficulty last year. The sponsor is holding him personally liable for QAR16m ($AUD 5.2m) that the company is alleged to owe debtors, including former staff’s unpaid salaries and rent.
Bogaert has been fighting back using the power of social networks. There is a Facebook group called “Philippe Liberation Front” with almost 6,000 members and he been updating a Twitter page @HostageinQatar since 23 May. One of his earliest tweets read “Don't sign any guaranty checks in Qatar. As a signatory, you are personally responsible and they could eventually get you in jail.” On a regular basis he tweets “I am a hostage in Qatar and this is my Twitter SOS” while telling his back-story to the world 140 characters at a time.
The 38 year old married father of two is a TV producer who says he was offered a “dream job” in April 2008. A communication consultancy company called Dialogic SA, which he had worked for in Belgium, was looking for a broadcast manager in Qatar. He would be working with the Qatar Marine Festival which was run by Sheikha Mozah, the Qatari Emir’s wife. Like all foreign workers in Qatar, Bogaert needed a sponsor and his was Farukh Azad a 28-year-old assistant to the executive director of the Qatar Foundation. Farukh was to play an important role in Bogaert's later difficulties.
What Bogaert did not know was that Dialogic was already in trouble in Qatar. A Few months before he arrived, a powerful Qatari official had asked Dialogic’s management in Belgium for a bribe. Brussels refused and the marine festival organising committee retaliated by refusing to pay its invoices. Shortly after Bogaert's arrival, the committee served Dialogic Qatar with a default notice saying they were not delivering to their standards. The firm’s Belgian managing director was fired and Bogaert was given the job to mend fences.
But after just ten days in the job, the Qatari committee cancelled Dialogic’s contract and Bogaert's new job was to wind up its affairs. The problem was that he needed company sponsor Farukh’s agreement to liquidate but he boycotted meetings arranged to strike a deal. In October, the frustrated Bogaert handed in his resignation which was accepted by the company’s Belgian CEO. But Farukh refused the the resignation and wouldn’t sign the exit permit. Bogaert was placed on a no-travel list and was now effectively a hostage.
He contacted Qatari security police, who called Farukh to settle the matter. Farukh told police that Bogaert had created a lot of problems for the company and accused him of criminal intentions which he said he could prove. Because he was the sponsor, he could have been held responsible for Dialogic’s debts under Qatari law. So instead he launched a court case of his own to make Bogaert personally responsible for the debt.
Dialogic Belgium refused to intervene saying the debts and Bogaert's imprisonment was the sponsor’s decision and responsibility. Stranded and out of cash, he went to the Belgium Embassy in early December. The ambassador apologised and said he could not help him leave but offered to put him up at his own residence. To earn money, Bogaert turned to an old skill and began singing and playing the piano in bars and restaurants around Doha. Despite the support of Amnesty International, Qatar’s Human Rights Committee, and Foreign Affairs bureaus in Belgium and Qatar, no one would intervene in the court case.
On 31 May, he finally had his day in court for a liquidation hearing. Bogaert found it difficult to follow the Arabic proceedings but found out the judge had ruled that Dialogic Belgium were not represented and delayed the hearing to 1 November. By now foreign media were beginning to get interested in his story and he was interviewed by Le Soir, The Independent, the Huffington Post, the Gulf Times and Belgian radio.
On Friday 19 June, he was back in court facing criminal charges on a bouncing cheques case. On Monday 22 June Bogaert was found guilty and sentenced to three years imprisonment. On Twitter, he said: “I can pay 500 Riyals to freeze the judgment and appeal. Then I will have to be represented by a Qatari lawyer during the next hearings.” Bogaert told Journalism.co.uk “If I raise the money, I can appeal so won’t go to jail (yet). But unfortunately, I’ll still be far from free.” Thanks to his publicity, he raised the funds and on 29 June his lawyer told him he had successfully appealed with a new hearing date of 12 October.
Bogaert's use of social media has met with mixed support. While it has undoubtedly given his case a wider audience, Bogaert admits the Belgian ambassador is not very happy with the strategy. “I put [up] an open letter to apologise to officials,” he said. Interestingly Bogaert has not been supported by any media freedom organisations: "I am a TV broadcast manager, not a journalist,” he said. “Although I might become a journalist [in order to receive more support]”.