Syrian refugees intimidated out of compensation claim, court hears
Four Syrian refugees have been pressured into withdrawing a civil claim against a Qatari bank they accuse of funding terrorism following a campaign of harassment by the Gulf state, a court has heard.
The claimants are bringing a case at the High Court in London against Doha Bank for allegedly allowing itself to be used as a vehicle to funnel large sums of cash to jihadi group the Al Nusra Front.
They accuse wealthy Qatari brothers Moutaz and Ramez al-Khayyat of using the bank to transfer money to countries bordering Syria so that it could be channelled to the al Qaida-affiliated group.
Eight claimants, who have been granted anonymity, were seeking damages from the bank and the brothers, alleging they suffered physical and psychological torture at the hands of the jihadists.
They said the three defendants knew or should have known that they were funding terrorism in breach of international law.
But now lawyers for the claimants say four have been forced to withdraw following repeated efforts by agents acting on behalf of Qatar’s ruling Al-Thani family to uncover their identity.
Ben Emmerson, for the claimants, said on Wednesday that the bank’s largest shareholder is sovereign wealth fund the Qatar Investment Authority and that four Al-Thani family members are on its board.
At a remote hearing, he said many people involved in the case, such as solicitors and interpreters, had been approached and either threatened or offered bribes to disclose the names of the claimants.
Mr Emmerson said on one occasion two “masked and armed” men had turned up at the home of a witness in the Netherlands at 2am, and that a tracking device was later found by police on his car.
“(There have) been serious attempts to get the identities of the claimants themselves no doubt with a view of using more serious tactics against them,” Mr Emmerson said.
He added: “The state of Qatar engaged in a sustained campaign of sending multiple individuals to multiple locations over a sustained period of time, the purpose of which is to pervert the course of justice.”
Mr Emmerson said that as recently as Monday evening someone working on the case had been approached by such individuals in a bid to extract the claimants’ names.
“Now (the four claimants) do not feel safe and are in fear of reprisals – exactly what the state of Qatar set out to achieve,” he said.
The court heard the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command is now engaged in a scoping exercise to determine if a criminal investigation into the allegations should be opened in the UK.
A High Court hearing to determine if the case should be heard in the UK or Qatar was scheduled next week, but Mr Emmerson asked for an adjournment to allow time for progress to be made in the criminal proceedings.
Sonia Tolaney QC, for Doha Bank, argued the allegations concerning witness intimidation were being used to buy more time for the claimants to prepare the case.
She added some of the allegations date back to August 2019, and that no attempt to involve the police had been made until this late stage.
Ms Tolaney said that any allegation concerning witness intimidation relates to the Al-Khayyat brothers and the state of Qatar, and has nothing to do with the bank.
In written submissions she said the bank would suffer “considerable prejudice” and wasted costs if the case was adjourned.
Judge Rosalind Coe QC adjourned the hearing until February, citing the need for more evidence concerning the alleged attempts to pervert the course of justice.
But she said it would be wrong to halt the civil case until any criminal case has either been concluded or discontinued.
“(The investigation) is currently at a scoping stage which means the extent of an investigation is not yet identified or whether the police would even carry out such an investigation is not yet known and so there is no time frame,” Judge Coe said.
She continued: “It is a very unusual case, one that gives rise to very serious allegations and for the court to be making decisions when even to the civil standard on the basis of incomplete evidence places the court in an invidious position.”
But she said it was “not necessary” for the state’s investigation to be completed, saying however: “I do find it necessary for the claimants to obtain more evidence in light of the matters alleged and also for the defendants to find some evidence in response.”
A spokesman for Moutaz and Ramez Al-Khayyat said they deny the “bizarre and baseless, yet extremely damaging allegations”.
He added: “The allegations are totally false.
“They do not understand why they have been targeted in this way.
“They have no knowledge of what has apparently been alleged at the hearing, they have not seen any evidence served by the claimants in support of their claims, they were not represented at the hearing and have not even been served with any court proceedings.
“They do, however, welcome the judge’s comments that more evidence must be brought before the court so that all can understand the nature and substance of what is being claimed.”