To the Christians, 666 (six six six) is the number of the beast. Double the digits, you get 121212 (twelve twelve twelve)–numbers now indelibly associated with the most harrowing experience of my life and my freedom!
On May 1, based on the words of his 12-year old son a Qatari father got me incarcerated in a jail in Doha, Qatar. My liberation, following a massive international campaign, came 12 days later, on May 12. (One might say the number 12 is also significant in Christianity–the number of apostles Jesus had.) The numbers most likely says and means nothing but here’s my story about my time in jail.
* * * * * *
Lying on the filthy bed the afternoon of May 1, sleep would have been the best escape. But, of course, the last thing that would come. I had lost my job. I had lost thousands of dollars. I had lost my health insurance. As far as I knew, I had lost support from my employer–I didn’t have a single visit from them in the hours I spent at the police station.
And now, having lost my freedom, there was a chance that I could lose everything else that mattered: my family and my sanity!
If my family knew where I was, I knew they would be devastated. In my parents’ case, I feared, probably even worse.
A huge dissonance lay between where I was supposed to be and where I was. I was supposed to be in my apartment, sharing a few drinks with my friends, saying my good-byes, in preparation for my departure for Nepal (in two days). Instead, there I was in a private cell.
I knew my sanity could be the next casualty. The repetitive question,”How did it come to this?! How did it come to this?!” ringing through my head again and again was maddening. I had no idea how long I would be in this room. I tried to imagine a worse nightmare…I couldn’t.
My challenge, my sanity, lay in closing the gap between where I thought I was supposed to be and where I was. On the verge of losing everything–EVERYTHING–it was no surprise then that I would also lose sleep!
Helping me to lose my sleep was my new-found neighbour in the private cell next door. He had already partly lost his head! All night, the Pakistani man kept me awake with his intermittent loud screams, groans, mumblings and furniture banging!
In the days that followed however, life, in a strange way, turned prison-normal! Returning from the Public Prosecution office, the following day, I ended up in a cell in the midst of about a dozen other Nepalese inmates. Thankfully it turned out, I wasn’t required to return to my private cell. I spent the rest of my time with ten other Nepalese.
Days inside consisted of three meals, fruits and yogurt for snacks, Hindi (Bollywood) movies and WWF wrestling on TV and games of chess. After the fourth day, I spent most of my time reading novels my friends had dropped off. Reading provided the escape, the distraction my mind needed. My cell mates though kept assuring me of how, because I had so many foreign friends, I would be freed in no time, unlike them.
* * * * * *
On May 2, the day after, they paraded me, in hand cuffs, in front of five different prosecutors in different rooms at the Public Prosecution office. I don’t know what the first four prosecutors and the guy taking me around exchanged between them–everything was in Arabic. But, with the fifth one, they provided an interpreter, an English interpreter, on my insistence. Otherwise it would have been Hindi or Urdu.
The man making the arrangement tells me,”You are Nepali, you speak Hindi.”
I resisted the temptation to ask, “Why not a Nepali interpreter then?” being aware of how I would struggle!
The exchanges I had with the final prosecutor was essentially a repeat of the ones I had had with the police officers the previous day.
The second trip to the Public Prosecution office, Sunday, May 5, I faced a prosecutor who spoke English. Again we had the same exchanges I had had the previous visit but with one important difference.
I would have to produce witnesses in court to prove my innocence, he informed me. In other words, I was guilty unless I proved myself innocent, consistent with a revealing comment by the user BigDaddyDK (see Figure 1 below) posted on the second Doha News article. (The comment is revealing on two counts: it describes what it means to be Nepalese in Qatar and how the Qatari legal process works.)
Otherwise, he told me, I could face five years in jail! I was stunned. (I was to find out after my release that it could have been seven years!) I was given 4 days before my arraignment in court. Towards the end, the prosecutor asked me if I had anything to say.
I asked something like,”Like what? What is something I can say?”
He goes,”You can say you ‘want to be freed and allowed to return home’.”
So I did, but they took me right back to jail!
The proceedings in the court Thursday, May 9, again was nothing but another kangaroo court. Neither did the judge speak English nor was there an interpreter. No questioning, no witnesses, no arguments…nothing. At no time did I get informed of any rights that I might have had. Not unlike at the Public Prosecutor’s office, I had no representation there either. I was given two weeks before my next court appearance.
* * * * * *
In spite of being told by SMS on May 1 that a Qatar Foundation legal department representative and an HSSE representative were coming, they showed up neither at the police station, nor in jail, nor at the Prosecutor’s office, nor at the court at any time. Far from feeling supported, I felt I had been dealt yet another blow by my employer when I read Qatar Academy’s statement in the first Doha News article (see Figure 2 below), more than a week after my incarceration. The statement told me I was no longer their concern.
Fig. 2. QA statement to Doha News.
Additionally, no one from the Nepalese Embassy made any contact. Forget about me. No embassy representative had set foot in either the jail or the judicial offices to meet or visit ANY Nepalese prisoners. Two of the prisoners I shared my cell with had been there for over two and a half years. They told me they had yet to see a single representative from the diplomatic mission. (One of them had even written to the embassy and to at least a Nepalese journalist each in both Kathmandu and Doha.) The closest thing to the mission’s involvement in my case was to make a lame statement, also more than a week into my incarceration, to Doha News saying, and I quote,“[I]nvestigation into Gurung’s case ‘will take time’.”
My friends however were a different story! They came to see me, regularly, even on days they weren’t allowed. (Visiting hours were limited to just Sunday afternoons.) A number of them came both Sundays, May 5 as well as May 12. On other days they dropped off care packages containing books, snacks, change of clothes and Mueslix. They came to the Public Prosecutor’s office and they came to the court as well. All of which, of course, helped maintain my sanity.
But the most crucial contribution my friends in Doha made was to defy the gag order from the school (see Figure 3 below), at great risks to their own jobs etc. They shared my story with Shabina Khatri, a journalist for Doha News. Following my return to jail after my court appearance, unbeknowst to me, my friends around the world had picked up that as well as the story about my appearance in court the following day, and had begun a campaign for my release.
Following my arraignment, the afternoon and evening of May 9, I had my first telephone conversations with a few friends in Doha. I don’t however recall any of them mentioning anything about the campaign. Maybe because it hadn’t really picked up or even begun. Regardless, apart from the first Doha News article, I was completely in the dark about everything else to do with the frantic activities taking place literally all over the world.
In the mean time, I had been racking my brains for a way to tell my international friends about my situation without alarming my family. One option I considered was getting a friend to publicise it through my Facebook page. But concerned about my parents finding out, I had been working on a systematic and efficient way of un-friending all my friends with connections to them. I got as far as passing my login details to a friend. I was confidant that once my friends around the world found out, they would start some campaign. However, that it would be so big, I wouldn’t have guessed! It had gotten so big in just four days, as a matter of fact, it secured my freedom.
* * * * * *
The afternoon of Sunday, May 12, I walked into the reception area of the police station–to the complete astonishment of my friends waiting to see me inside–a free man, but still unsure and suspicious. The Arab-speaking Qatar Academy staff was also there. The parent had apparently dropped the charges, according to this staff. But his dismissiveness and the flippant manner in which he told me that, made it difficult for me to believe him. Besides, the police didn’t have the necessary release papers. I would have to return the following morning for them.
I found everything that happened in the police station, before I was allowed to walk out, a little surreal. I signed two papers with some Arabic texts on them. The Arab-speaking QA staff explained that the signatures were to confirm that I would not “engage in such activities if I returned to Qatar in the future.” I had not even expected to be released. Even if released, I had absolutely no plans to return to Qatar. Additionally, I was among friends, outside. What’s more, they were telling me I had no idea what had been happening around the world. Not much of what my friends were telling me about the campaign sank in–I don’t remember much of those conversations–and I wasn’t sure what was going on.
That I was free finally sank in when I stepped out of my friend Jannie’s car in front of his apartment and saw familiar faces gathered outside. As soon as I stepped out, they started clapping and cheering, and hugging me as if welcoming a hero! Then profuse tears of relief starting flowing. Feeling relieved, a little strange and awkward, a little embarrassed and a little underserving of the attention and accolades, and to stop them from continuing on, I spoke the first of only a few different things I uttered to them that afternoon,”I did nothing!”
Walking up and into Jannie’s apartment, I was again welcomed by more friends and colleagues with open arms, with hugs and kisses. Between sobs and sniffling, at one point when everyone had quieted down (expectantly?), I uttered one more sentence,”Something good will come out of this. Something good will come out of this!”
More friends and colleagues poured in throughout the rest of the late afternoon. Something triggered the memory of the heart-wrenching story of ‘Chotu’ causing me to again begin sobbing and to utter another sentence,”There is a little kid, maybe 19, in there and he has no clue why.”
The Principal and the Vice-principal also came to congratulate me on my release. The Principal informed me how I needed to thank the Vice-principal for his work with the parent getting him to drop the charges. What they were unaware of was that I had already had long-distance phone conversations with two friends heavily involved in the campaign. Thousands of friends, colleagues, classmates, former colleagues, former teachers, former students, friends of friends and other well-wishers had spent hours on the campaign. A number of them had spent sleepless nights running and coordinating the campaign. By this time, I had already grown suspicious of the official reason for my release.
That afternoon, there were concerns for my safety and security. My friends and the Nepalese Embassy made arrangements for a secure accommodation for my last night in Doha. It wasn’t, therefore, until after 36 hours of my release, until I was safe and secure in Kathmandu, Nepal, far away from Qatar, that I was able to make my first public statement.
* * * * * *
All that because of a 12-year old’s words to his father, about an exchange we had in the cafeteria. Some additional adults were also indirectly involved in the ordeal. When their number is added up–the parent, the four administrators and the seven Board of Governors of Qatar Academy–oddly, you also get 12!
The numbers associated with the ordeal therefore should actually be the following: 12121212–12-year old, 12 adults, 12 days and 12th of May.
Even after all that, after everything had been said and done, I have gotten confirmation that the charges have NOT been dropped!