Britain’s counter-terrorism police are investigating claims that Qatar left a group of Syrian refugees in “fear of their lives” to thwart a court case in which its state-run bank was accused of being involved in funding terrorism in Syria.
Eight refugees had lodged a case for damages at London’s High Court against the Qatari Doha Bank and two wealthy brothers, Moutaz and Ramez Al Khayyat.
The brothers were described as two “prominent Syrian/Qatari businessmen over the funding of Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate.
They claim the brothers used accounts at Doha Bank to channel extensive funds to the group during the Syrian civil war.
A hearing was due to be held at the court on Monday on behalf of Doha Bank’s request for the trial to be moved to Qatar.
But in a last-minute twist, the claimants contacted the UK’s SO15 counter-terrorism squad on Tuesday to report claims of threats, bribery and intimidation against them by the state of Qatar.
Claimants feared for their lives
Four of the claimants have now withdrawn their claims in “fear of their lives”, the court heard on Wednesday.
The court was told people connected with the case have had their cars bugged, been threatened in their homes and some have been offered bribes to reveal the names of the claimants, who have all been granted anonymity by the court.
Their legal team claims those responsible are linked to the state of Qatar.
Scotland Yard told The National it had launched an immediate investigation.
“We can confirm that on November 9 we received allegations relating to terrorism funding, perverting the course of justice and witness intimidation,” a spokesman said.
“These allegations are being scoped by officers from the Met's Counter Terrorism Command with a view to determining whether there are grounds for a UK-based police investigation into these matters.”
Judge Rosaline Coe, QC, on Wednesday said she would take the “unusual step” of adjourning the case because of the “gravity” of the allegations.
“It is said these defendants are responsible for funding the terrorist group, which caused harm to the claimants,” Ms Coe said.
“The claimants contend there is an ongoing serious and significant conspiracy to pervert the course of justice relating to these proceedings.
“It is apparent that the allegations relate to a significant, prolonged and detailed attempt to identify the claimants by name, attempts to bribe and offer other inducements to people to obtain information about the case and their names, and approaches have been made to consultants with the claimants’ solicitors and interpreters.
“It has also become apparent that four of the claimants have indicated it is their intention not to proceed and abandon this action, on the basis that they are at risk of intimidation and because of the harassment, particularly in relation to the translator.
“I have reached the reluctant conclusion it must be adjourned.”
The case was referred to police by the claimant's solicitors, McCue & Partners.
"There are serious allegations that purported agents and supporters of the state of Qatar carried out alleged acts of criminality, terrorism or espionage on British soil, in a concerted attempt to intimidate and coerce witnesses and claimants to prevent the British courts hearing evidence of Qatar's funding of Al Nusra terrorism," Jason McCue, senior partner of McCue & Partners, told The National.
"We had no alternative but to refer this matter to the British authorities to investigate the veracity of these allegations and this tawdry state of affairs.
"It is clear that the claimants will not receive a fair trial if such alleged acts continue.
"We have faith that the British justice system will deal appropriately with these matters and thereafter enable our clients’ case to continue unhindered.”
The claimants are now in the Netherlands, where security services are also investigating allegations of harassment.
Bank calls accusations 'wild'
The claim was originally lodged in the UK courts last July and the bank’s legal team told the court on Tuesday that these were “wild accusations”, as part of their delaying tactics.
“Qatar is a friendly foreign state to this country and this court has to therefore be very cautious before entertaining wild allegations about the state interfering with public justice,” said the bank’s barrister, Sonia Tolaney, QC.
“We say that the bank will suffer prejudice if the case is adjourned.
"Simply making these assertions does not mean the bank has any knowledge of the alleged conspiracy. There is a real concern this claim is politically motivated.”
On behalf of the claimants, Ben Emmerson, QC, said he didnot believe the intimidation would stop.
“These are not wild accusations, it is a well-known fact that Qatar funds Al Nusra,” Mr Emmerson told the court.
“It is not true that the decision to report this is a Johnny-come-lately idea.
"The matters have been reported to the police in the Netherlands because that is where the events occurred.
"The report to the Dutch police is ongoing for the surveillance equipment unlawfully placed on the car, visits to the homes and threats.
“Four of the eight have been intimidated out of continuing with the claim due to acts of the state of Qatar. My view is there is no reason to believe this is going to stop.
“These are refugees who are bringing a claim to try to bring to account a powerful and extremely wealthy nation responsible for destabilising different parts of the world, not just through Al Nusra but Hamas in Gaza, and these individuals have a basic right to ensure there is a state-sponsored investigation.
"It is the right course, it is the only course.”
The hearing to decide in which country the trial will take place will now be held in October.
The trial will examine accusations that Doha Bank, the largest shareholder of which is the Qatar Investment Authority, the state’s sovereign wealth fudn, failed to stop the transfers of money to extremists by the brothers.
The bank’s chairman and several directors are members of the emirate’s ruling Al Thani family.
It is alleged money sent through bank accounts in Turkey and Lebanon was then taken to Syria and given to terrorists.
“As a result of the defendants’ actions, the Al Nusra Front was able to cause loss and damage to the claimants,” the claim states.
The Khayyat brothers, who run UrbaCon Trading and Contracting in Doha, were not represented at Wednesday's hearing.
A spokesman for the brothers told The National that they denied the claims.
“Moutaz and Ramez Al Khayyat deny all of these bizarre and baseless, yet extremely damaging allegations," the spokesman said.
"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.”