Qatar’s death row and the invisible migrant workforce deemed unworthy of due process
Qatari authorities are ignoring international law by failing to inform embassies when their citizens are arrested, detained or are pending trial for a death sentence.
Our new data reveals that between 2016 and 2021 at least 21 people were under sentence of death in Qatar. Of the 21, only three cases involved Qatari nationals and only one involved a woman (who was accused of murder). The remaining 18 were made up of foreign nationals: seven from India, two from Nepal, five from Bangladesh, one Tunisian and three Asians of unknown nationality.
Of these cases, 17 related to homicide and one a conviction for drug trafficking. The majority of the murder cases involved male migrant labourers from South Asia, convicted of crimes related to their precarious migrant worker status. The remaining murder cases involved one Tunisian man, and two defendants’ where the nationalities were unknown.
In December 2017, male Nepalese migrant worker Anil Chaudhary was sentenced to death for murdering a Qatari. He was executed by firing squad in May 2020 bringing an end to a 20-year hiatus on the death penalty in Qatar.
We have learned that Chaudhary’s embassy was only notified of his scheduled execution the day before, leaving them inadequate time to provide meaningful support at this final stage of the judicial process. While we do not know all of the details of the circumstances of his offence, every defendant, regardless of the severity of the alleged crime, should be afforded a fair legal defence – Chaudhary was not.
As Qatar moves into the spotlight as the host of the FIFA World Cup, so too, should its human rights record. Chaudhary is just one of an invisible migrant workforce who are deemed unworthy of due process.
These latest findings on Qatar are part of our wider Mapping Death Row project which we are compiling on the prevalence and experiences of foreign nationals under sentence of death, or executed, in the Middle East and Asia between 2016 and 2021. So far, we have gathered information on 1,240 cases, including 625 from the Gulf region, 330 of whom were from South Asia.
The vulnerability of a foreign national arrested abroad is recognised in international law with the UN’s Vienna Convention on Consular Relations 1963. Qatar acceded to this convention in 1998, which mandates that, when a foreign national is arrested, detained, or pending trial in another state, the authorities of the host nation must inform the individual without delay that they are entitled to have consular officials informed of their detention, and if they request it, the consulate must be notified immediately.
But our research has found that the Qatari authorities do not honour this agreement in practice. We have found that this occurs across the Gulf for people like Chaudhary – migrant workers found guilty of crimes without having access to lawyers who speak their own language and executed without appropriate post-conviction review processes or assistance.
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Astonishingly, Qatar has the highest ratio of migrants to citizens in the world: migrant workers make up 94% of the country’s labour force and 86% of the total population. Indeed, the population of Qatar has grown by 40% since the announcement of the World Cup bid in 2010, largely from unskilled migrant workers. Yet those migrant workers – mostly from Nepal, India and Bangladesh – are a highly transient and exploited population.
Our new evidence also shows that the capital crimes for which migrant workers are convicted across the Gulf region as a whole are inextricably connected to their precarious migratory and economic situations.
Damning evidence has emerged about the abuse of migrant workers, particularly those working on the World Cup infrastructure, who have died because of extreme working and living conditions (typically from heat, exhaustion, insufficient food and water, inadequate medical provision, and poor safety regulations).
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Nepalis are aware of the high death rate, as one man who frequently travels to Qatar described to us: “Every time you land in Nepal, a few coffins are taken off the plane first.” Indeed, Nepali politicians have reported that three to four Nepalis arrive home in coffins from the Gulf every day.
But less is known about the death penalty in this jurisdiction, and how capital punishment intersects with the issue of migrant worker abuse.
Chaudhary and blood money
The case of Chaudhary is one such example. We know he travelled to Qatar in 2015 to work as a labourer in a car washing firm. He was from the village of Aurahi in the Mahottari district of Nepal, a region with the second-largest source of migrant labour in the country, characterised by some as a place “where the streets have no men”, a consequence of many unskilled migrants travelling to Gulf states.
He was the only son of Gita and Shyam. The family took out a loan of 150,000 NRS (about £982) to secure him a job overseas, in the hope that his wages would support them as they struggled to make a living in Nepal. Now they are left destitute, as are many whose family members never return from the Gulf.
Chaudhary’s case highlights another way in which foreign nationals are disadvantaged in the death penalty system – this relates to the Islamic practice of diyya or “blood money”. Under sharia law there are three categories of crime, qesas, hudud and ta’azir.
The first category, qesas, covers crimes such as homicide and infliction of injury, and under sharia law there are options for restitution and forgiveness, including “blood money” whereby the accused pays financial compensation to the victim’s family as an alternative to retribution through execution. But, Chaudhary was unable to benefit from this practice, as his victim’s family refused to accept compensation. It is thought that migrant workers are much less likely to benefit from blood money as they are unlikely to be able to afford the payment.
Our research suggests that, even when notified, some embassies may not be forthcoming in assisting their nationals who are facing criminal charges. Our partners tell us that embassies may be reluctant to assist or devote funds to supporting those people because, as Pramod Acharya, an investigative journalist from Nepal, explained to us, they “don’t want to give the impression that they are protecting criminals”.
In Anil’s case, the embassy in Doha asked for 30,000 Riyals from the Nepali government to pay a lawyer to defend him at the Supreme Court. However, this request was bounced back and forth between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Ministry of Labour who then sent it to the Foreign Employment Board, wasting precious time. As Neha Choudhary at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Nepal told us, there is also a “disjunct” between the various government institutions in Nepal responsible for labourers working abroad. She said:
If there was enhanced coordination between various ministries, particularly the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as all three tiers of government, a lot of the gaps in ensuring rights of migrant workers could be addressed.
The Nepali Foreign Employment Board manages a fund of 6 billion rupees (£38 million), to be used for the assistance of migrant workers where required. This fund is financed by the migrant workers themselves, who are required to contribute as a condition of their foreign employment permit from Nepal.
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Guidelines, which came out in 2021, provide that the Board can spend 1.5 million rupees (around £9,500) to hire a lawyer for a worker detained abroad. However, one of our sources reported to us that the Foreign Employment Board had told them they had helped fewer than four such prisoners in this way in three years.
Other NGOs told us that the embassies argue they are understaffed and underfunded as well as poorly coordinated. Deepika Thapaliya, of Equidem, explained that the effectiveness of diplomatic interventions on behalf of the foreign national depended on the “bargaining power” of the foreign government, which many South Asian states do not have in the Gulf because they are so reliant on remittances (payments sent home by migrant workers to support their families in their home states). Nepal, for example, derives a quarter of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from remittances.
Similarly, Human Rights Watch and Justice Project Pakistan found that Pakistani migrant workers in Saudi Arabia did not seek consular assistance when faced with criminal charges, “because they did not believe Pakistani officials would offer any assistance, and they did not want to waste limited money on such phone calls”.
It is thought that this is because of foreign states’ interest in maintaining their economic relationships with Gulf countries and that “the remittances sent home by hundreds of thousands of such workers every month may be more important for the country than the protection of an individual citizen at risk of burdening the relations with the host country”.
Considerable research has established that foreign nationals are especially vulnerable when facing the death penalty abroad. They face practical barriers such as their inability to speak the language of their interrogators and jailors, being far from their social and economic support networks, and being unaware of their rights in an alien criminal justice system.
Under Qatari law, for example, only Qatari lawyers can represent defendants, and thus foreign defendants are not able to hire a lawyer from their own country, who would know their language and be better acquainted with their situation. In Chaudhary’s case, the Nepali Embassy in Doha found this rule to be a major barrier to ensuring he was well-represented, as it was difficult to find a Qatari lawyer who was ready to defend a foreigner accused of killing a Qatari national. After repeated requests from the embassy, a lawyer was found, but only after his sentence had been pronounced, making it much more difficult for any conviction to be overturned at appeal.
The types of crimes for which the death penalty is retained as a punishment in the Middle East, as well as Asia, are also by their nature more likely to involve foreign nationals, such as cross-border drug trafficking or terrorism.
The issue of the lack of consular notification and the vulnerability of foreign national defendants is apparent across the Gulf. One such tragic example includes the case of a Filipina migrant domestic worker who was executed in 2017, and whose embassy was only made aware of her execution the day before. Likewise, two Bahraini men were sentenced to death for terrorism in Saudi Arabia in 2021, and it is reported that they were subjected to torture and ill-treatment and not appointed a lawyer until after their trial sessions had begun. Their lawyer did not have access to all the relevant documents and information.
Conversely, in another case involving a Filipina domestic worker who was sentenced to death in UAE in 2014 after killing her employer in self-defence against sexual assault, she received assistance from her embassy in lodging her appeal and they were instrumental in securing her acquittal in 2017. This example underscores the vital role that consulates can play in assisting their nationals facing a death sentence abroad – if given the opportunity.
Migrant worker abuse and the death penalty
There has been little death penalty research in the Gulf. But one death penalty expert, Daniel Pascoe, believes it has some of the “most secretive” and “prolific” death penalty jurisdictions in the world.
In these “closed” Gulf states – where it is nearly impossible to obtain official information on the operation of the death penalty – we have had to utilise creative methods, relying upon a number of different sources for a triangulation of evidence.
We gathered material from partner organisations, including Eleos Justice, Harm Reduction International (HRI), Project 39A, Justice Project Pakistan, The Death Penalty Project, Reprieve, the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) and the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network, as well as others working on the ground including lawyers, journalists and activists. We also analysed the “grey” literature including NGO reports and media articles. Those cases we identified were collated, cross-referenced to omit duplications, anonymised where necessary and recorded on our database.
Qatar’s death row
Qatar retains the death penalty by firing squad or hanging for crimes including murder, terrorism, rape, drug trafficking, treason and espionage. Those under sentence of death are held at Central Prison, in Doha.
Though executions are rare, those under sentence of death suffer greatly because of “death row phenomenon” – recognised in international case law as the psychological impact of languishing on death row, which amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. And indeed, our partners, such as Acharya, tell us that those on death row in Qatar live in cramped and cold conditions, with “bed bugs and blood stained walls”, and they are rarely able to contact their families.
The number of death sentences passed in Qatar is slowly increasing; since 2020 at least four people have been sentenced to death per year, as compared to one or two death sentences per year in previous years.
What is more, for foreign nationals facing murder charges, the nationality of the victim may be pertinent. As the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and The Advocates for Human Rights have noted: “Recent history suggests that a migrant worker may be more likely to be sentenced to death and executed for killing a Qatari national, as opposed to a non-citizen”, suggesting that some lives matter more than others.
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Meanwhile the UN notes several human rights concerns about the Qatari criminal justice system. These include inadequate access to legal counsel and legal assistance in a language that the defendant can understand (which is particularly relevant to foreign nationals); restrictions on defendants’ ability to address the courts; and the use of trials in absentia.
Both the UN and Amnesty International reported claims by those under sentence of death in Qatar that their confessions were made under duress and torture and “in many cases, those raising allegations of torture were not Qatari nationals”.
The kafala system
Since the 1950s the kafala system of migration emerged to facilitate short-term migration with no prospect of the migrant gaining citizenship. Under this system, a migrant worker must be sponsored by a Gulf national (who becomes their kafeel). A worker’s legal status in the host country is dependent on their employment and relationship with their kafeel. This dependency makes unskilled workers susceptible to harsh working and living conditions, high recruitment fees (that leave migrant workers in debt), passport confiscation (so they cannot leave), wages being withheld, and the employer substituting their contract for one with less favourable conditions.
Some migrant workers are more vulnerable than others – especially domestic workers who work in the unregulated domestic sphere, not covered by labour laws. Migrant workers are not able to join trade unions or strike. If they leave their employment without permission from their employer, or stay in the country past the duration of their temporary visa, they face fines, detention, deportation and a ban on re-entry.
These conditions place workers in a situation that is tantamount to forced labour. And indeed, the human rights NGO Reprieve notes that:
The socioeconomic disadvantage and generally abusive work environments endured by many migrant workers in Gulf and South East Asian states render them especially vulnerable to human trafficking and to facing the death penalty for crimes that arise out of their trafficking and exploitation.
For foreign nationals sentenced to death for drug trafficking, our data suggest that the kafala system creates the conditions for drug trafficking, with many of those on death row across the region claiming to have been forced, tricked or coerced into ingesting capsules of drugs by the agents who arranged their job in the Gulf.
This concerning trend has been reported on elsewhere in the region, for example, a report by Human Rights Watch and Justice Project Pakistan suggested that labour recruitment agencies in Pakistan may be involved in drug trafficking, exposing Pakistani migrant workers to risks of incarceration and execution. The report states:
In several cases, detainees and family members alleged that men involved in the recruiting firms that sent Pakistanis to Saudi Arabia forced them to traffic drugs to Saudi Arabia.
Wider Gulf findings
The kafala system operates across the region, and plays a role in death penalty cases across the Gulf. Most of the other death penalty cases we found were in Saudi Arabia, where drug offences account for around 60% (221 cases out of 385) of all foreign national death sentences. In Saudi Arabia, drug trafficking accounts for the disproportionate number of Pakistanis subject to capital punishment, with more Pakistani citizens executed annually than any other foreign nationality, most for heroin smuggling.
We also found 130 foreign nationals under sentence of death or executed for homicide in Saudi Arabia during this period (which constitutes 34% of the total foreign nationals facing the death penalty in this jurisdiction for all crimes). These people were predominantly from Yemen, Pakistan, the Philippines and Egypt. The majority (some 89%) were male.
In the UAE, we found 114 foreign nationals facing the death penalty for homicide. Many were from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, with 82% being male. Interestingly, we found at least 27 Indian males who had been sentenced to death following violent crimes related to their bootlegging activities. We found 31 foreign nationals were sentenced to death for drug trafficking, from the following nationalities (in order of highest number): Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, India, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Smaller numbers (less than 10 per category) of foreign nationals were sentenced for other crimes such as child rape, robbery, adultery, terrorism and kidnapping.
We found fewer cases in the remaining two jurisdictions. In Bahrain, we recorded 17 foreign nationals on death row for homicide during this period from nations such as Bangladesh, Nepal and the Philippines, all of whom were male. We also found one case of a foreign male from another Gulf state (exact nationality unknown) having been sentenced to death for drug trafficking, and one Nepali male national sentenced to death for rape.
One illustrative case is that of a Filipino man, who, according to media reports, was convicted in Bahrain of killing a Pakistani national who had taken the Filipino’s passport as collateral for a loan he had made to him. The Filipino was looking for another job and he needed the passport so he could file an employment application. He allegedly killed the Pakistani man in order to retrieve his passport and not have to repay the loan.
Finally, in Kuwait we found 12 cases of foreign nationals subject to capital punishment from 2016 to 2021 for homicide (as compared to a total of 47 foreign nationals for all crimes). They came from places such as Egypt, Ethiopia and the Philippines. Here, seven were male and five were female – this jurisdiction highlights the phenomenon of domestic workers facing the death penalty after acting in self-defence against their employer. Maids are also at times seen as convenient scapegoats upon which to place blame for a murder committed by someone else.
For example, the case of Jakatia Pawa, who was executed in 2017 after being accused of killing her employer’s daughter, even though her DNA did not match that found at the scene. According to media reports, the judge refused to hear any testimony from the maid herself and the embassy were only told of her impending execution on the day it was carried out.
With regards to other crimes: there are four drug trafficking cases in Kuwait; one case of the death penalty for political charges; and one further case of the death penalty for the offences of theft, kidnapping and rape. There are also 29 cases of foreign nationals in this jurisdiction whose crimes are unknown. Taken together, all of these stories reveal the particular difficulties that migrant workers across the Gulf face.
Amnesty International coined the term “sportswashing” – referred to as states hosting high-profile sports events to try to obscure their poor human rights records. Examples of this include Brazil hosting the football World Cup in 2014 and Russia hosting the same in 2018. Amnesty International launched campaigns in light of these events and has done so for the Qatar World Cup too.
As the kick off to the World Cup approached, there were reports of workers being sacked after a circular was issued by the Qatari government urging companies to reduce the number of migrant workers in the country before the games started. In recent months, workers have been sent home in large numbers without being paid, with activists concerned this is to erase their presence before the world’s media and spectators arrive. Some of those who protested the withholding of their salaries were arrested and deported, in pursuance of an order to police. As Acharya discovered:
These workers are very unhappy that they worked a lot, they worked hard to make this tournament possible. But just a couple of months back, they were sent home and not in a good manner. They [the Qatari authorities] behaved like they were criminals and they were sent home.
Fifa has maintained that it “is not aware of any policy at the host country” mandating workers to leave Qatar ahead of the World Cup and that it is “in touch with our counterparts” in Qatar and the International Labour Organisation to “look into specific cases where companies may have terminated contracts in an improper manner”. Fifa says progress is being made on workers’ rights and labour conditions in the country and that there also compensation mechanisms in place.
The current competition has produced heated discussions in football about potential boycotts owing to Qatar’s poor human rights record.
Others are calling for something visible at the tournament itself. Acharya argues that people in Nepal are waiting for some recognition of the sacrifice that so many of their friends and families have made. They say “we could not get their lives back, but it would be good if they could recognise or honour the contribution of those workers”.
Arguably, protest action should also focus on this invisible death row population of migrant workers, many of whom are victims of trafficking, labour abuse, torture in detention and ultimately, for some, wrongful conviction.
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