A Northwestern in Qatar journalism student was beaten by police, then jailed for 10 days for going behind the scenes in the aftermath of a controversial mall fire. He says Northwestern did little to help, accusing him of being a “criminal” and ultimately “washing their hands” of him.
After waking up one morning to go to a doctor’s appointment, NU-Q student Usama Hamed, then a sophomore, was texted a disturbing photo by one of his classmates: a part of the popular Villaggio Mall was burning down.
Hamed, a photographer, decided to drive his car to the mall to find out what was happening. He filmed the tragic fire which engulfed the mall’s nursery, “Gympanzee.”
On May 28th 2012, the Villaggio fire killed 19 people, including 13 children. Hamed’s video of the event [warning: graphic content] got “almost 200,000 views in less than four hours” on YouTube.
But after filming the fire and its horrible aftermath, Hamed remained perturbed.
“I couldn’t sleep for two days. Because I saw the whole situation, and what happened and how it was handled. And I was a bit bothered about the whole situation. So I kept asking myself what really happened inside?” says Hamed.
As Hamed was thinking about this, he began to see pictures online of the inside of Villaggio mall and assumed that the authorities were letting people in with their cameras.
He drove back to the mall two days after the fire, got inside, and started shooting pictures.
“When I was going in, as I entered with a big P2 camera in my hand, a police saw me. I waved my hand, he waved his hand, and he said nothing,” Hamed says.
Eventually, Hamed entered the nursery, noting that amidst the destruction, he could tell that “all of what I was seeing, it was panic and lack of preparation that killed them.”
While he was taking pictures, a policeman shouted “stop” and began to insult him.
As Hamed was exiting the mall, the policeman shouted again and began running towards him, pulling out a baton. Scared, Hamed ran away and eventually lost him, and then hid himself.
But when he heard the policeman calling for backup on his radio, Hamed decided to go out of hiding and explain himself to the authorities, even though he says he could still have gotten back into his car undetected.
Upon trying to present his Northwestern press pass to two other policemen, the first policeman came and tried to hit Hamed with his baton. Hamed was handcuffed, and tensions escalated as the policeman kept insulting him.
“I told them this is not right, stop it, you’re a policeman, this isn’t what you should be doing,” says Hamed. “And then they hit me, and started pulling me, dragging me throughout the whole mall until the exit where the restaurants are.”
Eventually, Hamed was presented to a senior officer. Hamed gave him his press pass; it was rejected, as the officer claimed it was a fake. The officer then questioned him about his origins. Hamed said he was Spanish, but upon further questioning noted that while he had been born and raised in Spain, his father was Syrian and his mother Moroccan.
According to Hamed, the officer then said “Oh, you’re Syrian; good, bring the car.” He then spent an hour and a half in the police car and was arrested and taken to jail.
Once there, Hamed signed papers without having a lawyer or translator present. “They make you sign papers without giving you a chance to read them,” he says.
And Hamed faced a number of accusations.
“I was being accused of starting the fire, being a Syrian spy, spreading misinformation, and when I complained about the three policemen who beat me up, they complained about me and I was also accused of aggression on three police officers while handcuffed,” Hamed says.
Hamed spent one day in the police department and 10 nights in jail.
“When I was in jail for those ten days I felt very alone,” says Hamed.
But he managed to escape the ordeal. “I was bailed. I paid 15,000 riyals [about US $4,000]. And I was made to sign that I wouldn’t break any Qatari laws or try to leave the country- and if I tried to do so, I would go to jail,” Hamed says. “My father is the one who bailed me out. He also had to sign saying that if I broke any law he would be held accountable for such things.”
Hamed is adamant that he did not cross any police tape or physical barrier: “Nothing. I walked in front of police, with my camera, waived a hand, he [a policeman] is smoking his pipe, I’m walking around, no police tape, no anything.”
Hamed also says the Qatari authorities’ report on his arrest was flawed.
He remembers being asked by police what time he got to Villaggio (5:30), where he parked (in the parking lot), and how far it was from the entrance (around 100 meters).
“So then you read the report and it’s like, I arrived at Villaggio at around 5:30, and I parked my car around 100 meters away from the door so the police wouldn’t see me. Blah blah.”
“I still have a copy of the thing. I can point to you point by point all the stuff they made up,” says Hamed.
What did NU-Q do to help one of its students?
“They washed their hands from it,” says Hamed.
After he was arrested, Hamed called a friend who notified Richard Roth, the Senior Associate Dean for Journalism at NU-Q. Saeed Mohamed, the Personnel Services Liaison and Government Relations Officer at NU-Q, was sent.
Everette Dennis, the Dean and CEO of NU-Q, wrote in an email to THE CHRONICLE that Saeed “stayed on the scene until the student’s father, a longtime Qatari resident, arrived.”
“The father advised our staffer that he was taking responsibility and no longer needed our assistance,” stated Dennis. “Since it was a civil matter not directly involving the university, we complied with the family’s wishes.”
“We had several meetings of our executive staff monitoring the situation, but were not asked by the student or his family to be further involved,” Dennis wrote.
But Hamed tells a more complex story.
“All Saeed could do was follow-up, so when my father arrived and asked him if he was able to do anything, he said no,” says Hamed.
“We’ve known Saeed for a while and he’s a friend. So it’s not that we didn’t want the university to help, we just didn’t want him to spend the whole night in the police department if he couldn’t do anything anyway,” he says.
According to Dean Dennis, Hamed “did not inform us further about this until he returned to school in the fall and in a hallway conversation mentioned it to me.” Dennis wrote “I volunteered to be of assistance if he needed me as a character witness” for Hamed’s court date.
“I got this offer from many people, no I didn’t need character witnesses. I had a bunch of them just in case,” says Hamed.
And Hamed also says that within a week after his release, he went and sought assistance from NU-Q’s administration.
“I was actually going there to see if the university could help me out in any way, but was accused of being a criminal, so I didn’t go any further,” Hamed says.
“When I asked them about the possibility of helping me out, of talking to someone at the Qatar Foundation, or doing something with lawyers or with anything, I was told – I’m gonna quote this to you – ‘Northwestern University does not help or support criminals.’”
“So I was a bit shocked. I was like ‘who are you calling a criminal,’” says Hamed. “So he told me the police report said that you broke the law, and this is Greg Bergida, Dean [sic] of Student Affairs. If this was the main campus, we would have actually taken measures against you.”
“They said what I was doing wasn’t approved by any professor, so they don’t support that either. It wasn’t a class,” Hamed says.
In an email with THE CHRONICLE about his involvement with Hamed’s detainment, Greg Bergida, NU-Q’s Director of Student Affairs, replied: “unfortunately I am unable to share information on this issue as this is a pending legal matter that does not involve the university. If you have any questions though, please follow up with the dean’s office.”
NU-Q’s Richard Roth, who also offered to be a character witness for Hamed, says he has not heard of this conversation with Bergida.
“I have no knowledge of that conversation- never heard anything about it. I don’t know that he’s [Hamed] been convicted of breaking the law,” Roth says. “You know, he did something that journalists and other citizens don’t do in here or in the US- don’t go into a crime scene. But his view is that nobody told him he couldn’t.”
Hamed, whose case was removed in November, says ultimately no one from NU-Q came to ask him for his side of the story.
“Nobody from Northwestern actually, nobody, had come to ask me anything about what happened,” he says.
But after all this, Hamed says he isn’t surprised he was arrested and detained by the authorities.
“No, I think I expected all this. Yeah. I expected all this from here, from the police, from everywhere, but what I didn’t expect was the reaction of Northwestern University,” he says. “I was told, Northwestern has the connections- but they would not use them because I broke the law.”
He feels like he got in trouble for simply doing his job.
“We’re students, you know. We’re being told to push the limits, to define the new boundaries. They tell us, it’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission. So they do encourage this but they’re not ready for the outcome,” he says.
In the end, for Hamed, reporting in Qatar “is always about balancing things. It’s always trying to push things, but trying to find the right way. Because if you cause damage, you’re doing the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do.”
To read Part 1 of The Chron’s series on Qatar, click here. Photos by Annalise Frank.