Zahir Belounis: another embarrassment for Qatar

Today’s Independent report on the extraordinary case of Zahir Belounis, the French professional footballer,who has been held virtually captive in Qatar.

Belounis, who played for the El Jaish club, in the Stars League, has been told by Qatari authorities that he cannot leave the country unless he drops a legal case against El Jaish over what he claims are two years’ unpaid wages. The case gained such a high profile in France that the French President, François Hollande, tried, unsuccessfully, to intervene on Belounis’s behalf on a state visit to Qatar in June.

The 33-year-old took legal action against El Jaish in February after 18 months during which the club had failed to pay him under the terms of a five-year contract he signed in 2010. He has been told that under the kafala system of visa sponsorship, blamed for the inhuman treatment of Nepali workers employed on Qatar 2022 World Cup projects, he will not be allowed to leave the country unless he drops the case.

Belounis told The Independent that his football career is over and that he has feared for his mental health in the past six months.

He said that every day that he spent in Qatar, punished for his decision to defend himself legally was “unacceptable”. He said: “I am the first to do this [take legal action against a Qatari club]. Of course I am scared. I am not in my country. Now that I have started to speak to the press some of my friends have left [ie broken contact].

“I have lost everything. Now I want to come back to my country. Give me my freedom. Here you can stop someone leaving if they have done something, made a mistake [ie, committed a crime]. I have nothing against me. Nothing, nothing, nothing.”

Belounis is being supported by the International Trade Union Congress (ITUC), whose director Tim Noonan said: “He is unable to leave. It’s destroying his professional career and having a traumatic impact on his family.”

The ITUC laid out its concerns in person about working conditions in Qatar to FIFA’s general secretary, Jérôme Valcke, in November 2011. FIFA put out a short statement expressing their concerns but, the ITUC says, has done precious little since.

The more you hear about Qatar, the more you ask yourslef: what were they thinking when they decided to award the world’s most prestigious tournament to the such a state?