DOHA: An end has been marked in the Zahir Belounis saga after the embarrassment of a worldwide media storm proved too much for even the Qatar authorities writes KEIR RADNEDGE.
The controversy over the French-Algerian footballer Zahir Belounis overshadowed Qatar’s recent announcement of the timeframe for their first of its World Cup stadia and added fuel to Amnesty International’s corruscating attack on the medieval kafala system.
Belounis, 33, had been stranded in the Gulf nation, together with his wife and two daughters, after being denied an exit visa until he agreed to drop legal proceedings against his former club, Al-Jaish, over a claim of almost two years of unpaid wages.
His case personalised and ‘mediatised’ in a high-profile and illustratively simple way the iniquities of the system of tied employment which had long disturbed the International Trade Union Confederation and other human rights campaigners; the ITUC has described kafala as akin to ‘modern slavery.’
Now his brother Mahdi, who has led a tireless campaign on Zahir’s behalf, has had the relief and satisfaction of seeing the exit visa granted and Belounis fly back in to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.
Belounis joined Qatari side Al-Jaish in 2007 when the club was a military team in the Qatar second division. He extended his contract, in 2010, until 2015 and was even made a Qatari national to appear in the national team at the Military World Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2011.
On his return from Brazil, Belounis was sent away on loan, as the club had engaged more overseas players than allowed. The following season Al-Jaish did not even send him on loan, and from November 2011 stopped paying his salary after being promoted into the top division and being transformed into a formal sports club.
In October 2012 Belounis engaged legal help to pursue fulfilment of his contract. The club then put Belounis under pressure to terminate his contract and sign a document confirming he was owed nothing by Al-Jaish. The club told him he could not leave Qatar unless he signed. Belounis refused, concerned that his signature would invalidate any claim.
As his savings from his Qatar years dwindled, so Belounis has been supported financially by friends and family while brother Mahdi pursued an admirably vigorous campaign on his behalf.
The international players’ union, FIFPro, was among other campaigners after having assisted other players who had undergone similar victimisation at the hands of Qatari clubs hiding behind the kafala laws. FIFPro sought consultations with world federation FIFA about the manner in which kafala contravenes international football statutes.
Previously FIFA had refused to become involved in the Belounis issue because the player had preferred to seek a solution in the civil courts rather than approach its own disputes resolution system.
Sharan Burrow (general-secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation) said:
A grave injustice is nearly over for Zahir and his family. One man and his family have come to illustrate the conditions faced by 1.3 million migrant workers in Qatar.
The torment that Zahir and his family have been put through because of bad laws which give workers no rights should never be repeated.
Sadly, today in Qatar there remain many workers who have no voice. The Qatar authorities should reform their laws to respect International Labour Organisation conditions.
FIFPro is delighted to hear Zahir Belounis’ ordeal will soon be over. Having finally received his exit visa, on Wednesday (November 27), the French-Algerian footballer is now free to leave Qatar. Zahir Belounis is scheduled to leave Doha for Paris, on Thursday.
As the worldwide representative for professional footballers, FIFPro will be able to welcome back a long-lost family member.
The World Footballers’ Association would also like to express its gratitude to all who joined together with FIFPro to ensure a successful outcome.
FIFPro heads to Qatar on Thursday (November 28) to start a four-day visit to engage local authorities in a bid to help prevent future misery for those who find themselves powerless under the working conditions of Qatar’s kafala sponsorship system.