Belounis Returns: Footballer Escapes Qatar [Slavery] at Heavy Price


Stefan Simons – Der Spiegel

French footballer Zahir Belounis is back in his homeland after being trapped in Qatar against his will. He paid a heavy price for freedom, but is now vowing to fight back against his former club.

The soccer player’s return to his homeland was accompanied by a flurry of flashbulbs. As Zahir Belounis fell into the arms of his mother and brother at 7:23 p.m. on Thursday in the arrivals hall of Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, the reunion took place under the lights and in front of the cameras of the international media.

But the story was not of a leading sports star returning in triumph. Rather, Belounis is just glad to be home after a long struggle in Qatar. “I’m glad to be here again, I am proud of my country,” he said, visibly moved. “I thank my wife, who has stood by me through all the terrible months, and now I wish only peace for my family.”

“We have won, Belounis is free,” exulted his Moroccan friend and fellow campaigner Abdelam Ouaddou, who had also gotten stuck as a footballer in the Gulf state. “It is a victory for freedom. For him, a nightmare has come to an end.”

“We are winning,” Ouaddou added, “but that was only the first half.”

Belounis ‘Signed Retroactive Termination’

Indeed, Belounis’ release — which came after pressure from the international football community, the media and even French President Francois Hollande — has come at a price. Belouis only secured his departure from Qatar after giving up all his claims against his former employer. According to friends of his in Paris, he signed a “retroactive termination,” which has virtually ruled out any legal action against the Qatari El Jaish Sports Club.

In the waiver, the 33-year-old even had to thank the club for providing his apartment. It’s a bittersweet ending for a professional footballer who had hoped to gild his career in Qatar.

The emirate, which controversially won the right to host the 2022 World Cup, has been investing in stadiums, roads and hotels for years. Fading international stars, such as the Spaniard and Real Madrid legend Raúl, have been hired to provide a bit of flair and improve the image of the country as a modern sporting nation. Belounis also arrived in Qatar thinking he had “won the “jackpot,” he told SPIEGEL recently.

‘This is Modern Slavery’

The French-Algerian striker, who previously played in Switzerland, signed a five-year contract in 2010 with the army’s soccer team, which at the time was a second-division outfit and hardly a glamor team. Belounis was given the rank of “senior civil technician” and found success with the team, rising to become its captain.

His club was newly formed for the top-level Qatar Stars League and renamed the El Jaish Sports Club. It bought new players, a Brazilian and an Algerian. But this proved to be the start of the nightmare for Belounis, as only four foreigners are allowed to play for each team.

Belounis was eventually let go and moved to another second-tier outfit, although El Jaish was supposed to keep paying him. However, he was not allowed to play with his new team. Before long, his salary payments were stopped and his club car cancelled. He claims the team owes him €74,000 ($100,000).

Belounis lodged a complaint and wanted to leave the country. But, in Qatar, the so-called kafala system applies to foreign workers, regardless of whether they are soccer players, construction workers or cleaners. It requires a guarantor in order to emigrate, usually the worker’s employer. Belounis’ club, however, refused to let him leave without dropping his legal claims. “This is modern slavery in a state that abolished this form of serfdom by law in 1952,” says Ouaddou.

Belounis and his family had suffered a “grave injustice” and had come to “illustrate the conditions faced by 1.3 million migrant workers in Qatar,” said Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Federation, who was waiting for the footballer at the airport. “There are no winners,” she added.

What is certain is that Belounis will look to take action against his former club before moving on. “The Qataris have partially destroyed me; psychologically I was crippled. But the story is not over yet,” he said defiantly. Along with his lawyer, he wants to file suit against his ex-employer in court. “They will pay dearly for this,” he said.

But that will not be simple. Belounis needs to rebuild his life first, said his friend Ouaddou. He needs a job and further support. “It will be a long second half.”

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