The family of an Australian granddad jailed in Qatar over business debts have appealed for the Australian government to intervene.
Building boss Joseph Sarlak, 68, was locked up when his firm got into money troubles and started bouncing cheques – a criminal offence in the Middle Eastern country – two years ago.
While he is currently serving sentences totaling six and a half years at Qatar Central Prison in Doha over what’s understood to be millions of dollars of debts, his lawyers say additional charges are awaiting judgement and he could realistically die in prison.
Mr Sarlak and his lawyer claim the financial nightmare was caused by his Qatari business partner, but he has ended up taking the blame. UK-based Australian lawyer Radha Stirling is leading the campaign for Mr Sarlak’s release.
She called on the Australian and Qatari governments to act – noting the importance of diplomacy as the country will host the next FIFA World Cup. Ms Stirling has successfully worked to free expat prisoners from Middle East prisons via her organisations Detained in Dubai and Detained Abroad. She’s involved in the campaign to find missing Dubai Princess Latifa.
She said with cases continuing to build up against him, Mr Sarlak faces the prospect of never being released.
Mr Sarlak emigrated from his native Iran to Australia as a young man. He raised his daughter Layla, a corporate receptionist and her brothers Keyan, 34, and Faid, 37, in Albury, NSW with wife Barbara, who has sadly died from cancer since he’s been in prison.
He ran a building company called Clearspan Technologies. In 2004, he was asked to provide a quote to build an aircraft hangar for Qatar Airlines’ royal family VVIP division, according to Ms Stirling. He won the bid, but the country’s laws meant he needed a local sponsor, who would own a new Qatari division of the company which was named Clearspan Middle East.
He couldn’t have an official title or be an official shareholder, said Ms Stirling.
However, Ms Stirling claims his partner, started using the company as a “cash cow”.
In 2016, as it struggled to stay afloat, Mr Sarlak claims a former contractor started a rumour he intended to skip the country which would have been a criminal offence. While he said it wasn’t true, his sponsor launched a criminal case against him.
Then when Mr Sarlak went to the police station on July 31 that year to try and clear everything up, he was arrested, according to Ms Stirling. Ms Stirling said he was sentenced to three months in prison for “considering but not absconding”, and was forced to sign a confession in Arabic with no lawyer.
But with him in jail, his company’s financial issues worsened. Soon cheques signed by him had bounced – a major criminal offence. The charges mounted up, including a further case opened by his business partner claiming he “cheated” the company.
Layla, who had visited him in Doha every couple of years, said it was a shock – especially as things had seemed to be going well. Mr Sarlak was quoted in Qatar industry magazine G&Z Construction Profiles in 2013 saying his company had landed a $US7m contract to create aircraft aprons at Doha Airport and had bought new machinery to complete it.
He was also reported to have visited Brazil the same year as part of a delegation discussing building a new cargo airport, in Pouso Alegre inland from Sao Paolo, according to PousoAlegre.net, which pictured him with other delegates.
He’s now sharing a cell with British businessman Jonathan Nash, who was jailed for 37 years for bouncing cheques.
The British Embassy in Doha says on its website prisoners can expect to be shackled in leg chains when transported, and men have their heads shaved on admission.
“They’re overcrowded, the medical assistance is minimal, he’s really worried, he’s got a list of medical conditions and automatically people lose half their body weight in the first few months,” said Ms Stirling.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed it is providing consular assistance to an Australian man detained in Qatar.
The listed number for Clearspan Technologies in Doha has been suspended, and the website no longer works.