x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Belgian jailed for three years after company fails

A Belgian national who claims he has been "held hostage" in Qatar by his sponsor, has been sentenced to three years in prison with hard labour.

A Belgian national who claims he has been "held hostage" in Qatar by his sponsor since the company he worked for fell into financial difficulty last year, has been sentenced to three years in prison with hard labour. Philippe Bogaert, 38, was convicted after several cheques he guaranteed during the three months he spent as general manager of Dialogic Qatar, a subsidiary of the Belgian communication consultant Dialogic SA, failed to clear. He still has the right to appeal, according to court documents obtained by The National.

After having personally put up 128,500 riyals (Dh129,600) to cover the cheques, written to guarantee staff credit cards when the company began to struggle, he remains optimistic he will not serve the term. But a separate, more intractable dispute with Dialogic's Qatari sponsor threatens to render any appeal victory moot because Bogaert cannot leave the country until it is resolved. "I am being held hostage in Qatar with a ransom of 16 million Qatari riyals on my head," he said. "My sponsor claims that is what needs to be paid before he allows the company to be liquidated."

His 28-year-old Qatari sponsor, Farukh Azad, is holding him liable for QAR16m that the company is alleged to owe debtors, including former staff's unpaid salaries and rent. Bogaert worked at Dialogic for only six months, half of which was on temporary contract. "I took up the position as a broadcast manager at Dialogic in April and I wasn't aware that there was already a lot of trouble and payment issues going on," he said.

Last July, the previous general manager was fired after falling out with the company's only client, the Qatar Marine Festival Organising Committee, and Bogaert stepped in to "temporarily" take up his position. Within 10 days the festival committee cancelled its contract with Dialogic, cutting off its only source of revenue. In a statement QMFOC said Dialogic "failed to fulfil" its contract, an allegation that Dialogic disputes. The festival declined to give further details, but said it was in no way involved with the legal case against Bogaert. It would comment no further.

"I did nothing but try to resolve a complicated situation which I inherited," said Bogaert, whose wife and two children live in Belgium. "There's no way that he [the sponsor] can win this, but it's going to take forever." After it failed to reach a settlement with the marine festival, Dialogic SA decided it could not afford an expensive arbitration and tried to liquidate the company, but Mr Azad blocked proceedings by refusing to appear at hearings.

Bogaert speculates that his sponsor is concerned that he would be held responsible for the debts himself plus any fees demanded to be returned for the "unfulfilled" contract. Under Qatari law, a sponsor may be held liable for such debt. When Bogaert resigned from Dialogic in October, Mr Azad refused to sign his exit papers and later lodged the law suit. Bogaert admits he was "naive" in taking over the role of general manager without fully researching the risks, but said he hopes his case will serve as a warning for others.

"I've heard about people being stuck abroad because of financial disputes, but I thought it was just a matter of being honest and straightforward and doing the job properly and [I thought] these things don't happen. But that's exactly what everybody else thinks," he said. "People are completely unaware of their risks." With all other avenues yielding little hope, Bogaert turned to the media to raise awareness of his case. On advice from a journalist, he began to tell his story on Twitter, in 140-character installments.

"This is the story of how I became a prisoner in Qatar. Consider it my Twitter SOS," read his first message on the site, where he writes under the moniker "hostageinqatar" and has 800 "followers" reading his tweets, or short messages. His former employer said he does not see a way forward, and has tried to arrange talks with Mr Azad, to no avail. Mr Azad did not return calls from The National seeking comment.

"We don't know how to handle the situation," said Philippe Housiaux, chief executive of Dialogic in Brussels. "Someone who is a nice person, who has done nothing wrong, has been blocked in Qatar." Bert Ouvry, a spokesman for the Belgian foreign ministry, said Bogaert appeared to be stuck in legal limbo, with little the country could do to help. "Over the past month, we've had contact at high levels to look for a solution for Philippe Bogaert to leave. However, this appears not possible."

Luc de Volder, the Belgian ambassador to Qatar, also said there was little he could do. "Right now, it's out of our hands." Émile Franck, Amnesty International's Belgium director, said he had lobbied the Belgian government to do more to assist Bogaert, but negotiations had stalled on the Qatari side. "All Philippe wants to do is see his family. However, I'm not sure the situation will be resolved anytime soon."

A spokesman for the Qatar ministry of interior declined to comment on the case. Bogaert's greatest concern is missing out on life with his wife and children. "It's horrific," he said. "You see them growing up on Skype and in pictures. It's really hard to talk about it." Having resigned from his position at Dialogic, Bogaert has no income and has been living in the Belgian ambassador's residence since December. While out on bail and awaiting his appeal, he is playing piano in Doha's bars and cafes to raise funds.

Although his situation with the authorities seems to be have stalled, his online campaign is gaining momentum. His blog (www.hostageinqatar.com), where he is now raising money for legal fees for his appeal after receiving his sentence this week, has had more than 58,000 hits since he began posting his digital SOS late last month. lmorris@thenational.ae dgeorgecosh@thenational.ae