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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

The woman taking Qatar to task over its funding of Al Qaeda

Liesbeth Zegveld is representing dozens of the Nusra Front's victims, and she wants Doha to pay

Lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld (C) stands with Chris Uktolseja (L), relative of a Groningen 1977 train hijacker, in the Court of The Hague, The Netherlands, 01 February 2017. Zegveld is seeking compensation for dozens of Dutch victims of Al Qaeda-linked group the Nusra Front. Remko de Waal / EPA
Lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld (C) stands with Chris Uktolseja (L), relative of a Groningen 1977 train hijacker, in the Court of The Hague, The Netherlands, 01 February 2017. Zegveld is seeking compensation for dozens of Dutch victims of Al Qaeda-linked group the Nusra Front. Remko de Waal / EPA

Qatar faces growing pressure from leaders across the world to halt its financing of international terrorism. But the battle to hold Doha to account for its money lining the pockets of extremists has found a new front: Amsterdam.

A Dutch lawyer is threatening legal action against Qatar, state officials and organisations residing in the country for its support of the Nusra Front, the Al Qaeda-linked affiliate that has been involved in several high-profile kidnaps and possible crimes against humanity in Syria.

Liesbeth Zegveld, an attorney for Prakken d’Oliveira Human Rights Lawyers in the Dutch capital, is demanding compensation for dozens of victims of the Nusra Front now residing in the Netherlands. A letter sent by Zegveld to the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani on April 23, obtained by The National, reveals new details about the legal quagmire hanging over the Qatari government, despite its denials on its financing of militant groups.

“The Al Nusra Front receives funding through terror financing networks in Qatar. Your government has protected and failed to act genuinely against public and private terror financing networks”, the letter reads, in reference to the group now rebranded as Hayat Tahrir Al Sham and in control of much of Idlib province in northwestern Syria.

“Qatar is therefore liable for the damages suffered by the victims of the Al Nusra Front. Through this letter, we demand that you set up a fund to compensate the victims”.

It names one example of a Qatari front as Madid Ahl Al Sham, a Qatar based fundraising campaign whose main purpose “is to support Al Nusra Front fighters in Syria”. It says Nusra used this vehicle as its preferred avenue for donors to channel funds to the group, a call that Mahdid Al Sham subsequently reposted on social media outlets.

“It did this while operating under the auspices of the Qatar Centre for Voluntary Activity, a government organisation working under the Ministry of Culture and Sports”, the letter charges.

Further evidence emerged last week of Qatar’s multi-million payments to extremist groups, including the Nusra Front, in a deal to secure the release of a hunting party kidnapped by a Shiite militia in southern Iraq in 2015.

Ms Zegveld, who last year secured a new investigation into the ending of a 1977 train hijack in Groningen, told The National that while they are focusing on several cases, there could be many more victims who now reside in the Netherlands.

“We are really focusing on Nusra, because that’s the link we can make to Qatar. We are researching their cases to see if it can be proved that it was Al Nusra”, she said. “Ultimately, we believe there are hundreds of victims in the Netherlands that have suffered from Al Nusra. That’s in the Netherlands. There will be many more in Germany and in France”.

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One such case is that of a director of an engineering company close to Damascus who was kidnapped in December 2012 by masked men and taken to a prison where he was beaten and tortured alongside other detainees. He witnessed the execution of two prisoners and was subjected to a mock execution, in which Nusra militants fired gunshots past his head. The man, whose name is being withheld to protect his safety, managed to escape, obtaining asylum in the Netherlands.

Any legal action taken against Qatari officials for its role in financing would be tied to several crimes committed by Nusra Front. “Torture. Killing. Kidnapping for ransom. It could be any of these kinds of exercises”, Ms Zegveld said.

The letter goes on to list a slate of evidence against Qatar. It says a Qatari national with close links to the government in Doha ordered the transfer of $600,000 to Al Qaeda representatives in Syria as early as 2013. It then cites former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber bin Mohammed bin Thani Al Thani confirming on Qatari-hosted broadcaster Al Jazeera that "maybe...there was a relation" with Al Nusra. "Even if there was a relation, when we were told that Al Nusra is not accepted, the support stopped".

The letter then accuses Doha of “window dressing” efforts to prevent the financing of terrorist organisations, such as the prosecution and acquittal of the Mahdid Al Sham leader Sa'd bin Sa'd Muhammad Shariyan Al Ka'bi, who the UN named on its Al Qaeda sanctions list in September 2015. Al Ka'bi, for instance, once used a flyer on social media to call for $1,500 for the preparation of a Syrian militant.

As a result of such evidence, the letter charges that the Nusra Front "was only able to arise and maintain its terrorist activities due to the financing provided by Qatar".

More recently, a Gulf boycott in response to Qatar’s hosting of the Taliban and support of the Muslim Brotherhood has rattled the state that juts out into the Arabian Gulf. Ms Zegveld believes European action against its Al Qaeda link will have a further impact on the country's officials.

“There will be Qataris sued. They won’t be left at peace. That can become a little bit more trouble for them”, she said. “But also, they clearly want good relations with the West. These lawsuits are not nice to have when you are travelling”.

Ms Zegveld sent the letter to the Qatari embassy in the Hague, aswell as the personal office of Al Thani, but is yet to receive a reply. She has given Qatari officials a six-week ultimatum to respond to her letter, at which point legal action would begin. Does she think Doha will respond by June 4?

“Let’s see”, she said. “The voice of victims is heard now. We have the legal instrument. Let’s use it”.