Joe Sarlak in a Qatari prison hospital in 2017 (Image: Supplied)

Australian grandfather Joe Sarlak was imprisoned in Qatar for nearly three years and is still stuck abroad with pending legal cases.

He alleges the Australian government has done little to help and his representative and human rights activist Radha Stirling says the government has never contacted its diplomatic counterparts to campaign for his release.

That is a stark contrast to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) efforts to secure the release of academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert who was detained in Iran.

Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne has been criticised for not doing more to protest against the treatment of Australian airline passengers who were forcibly strip-searched at Doha airport in October.

It raises the question: is the Australian government reluctant to challenge Qatar?

Where are the tensions?

Sarlak, 70, from the Sydney suburb of Auburn, was jailed in July 2016 after his Qatari business partner embezzled funds, causing the company’s cheques to bounce — a criminal offence in Qatar.

His company was building aircraft hangars for the royal family’s airline. He said he didn’t have a lawyer at his trial and was forced to sign a confession in Arabic.

Sarlak was eventually cleared and released from prison, only to be detained due to not having the correct visa. He’s since been released again, but more legal cases have been filed against him, meaning he cannot leave the country.

“There is a pattern of legal abuse against foreign nationals by members of the ruling elite,” Stirling has said.

“Australia categorically needs to warn citizens that entrepreneurs, businessmen and investors who consider Qatar a safe commerce venue should consider they too could end up like Joe Sarlak.”

DFAT told Crikey the Australian government had been providing consular assistance to Sarlak since 2016 but wouldn’t comment further due to privacy obligations.

The Qatar embassy in Canberra told Crikey Sarlak “had been sentenced in several cases” and the Australian embassy had been notified, but it wouldn’t elaborate.

Tensions between Australia and Qatar were heightened in October when a premature baby was abandoned at Doha airport. Planes were grounded and women — including 18 Australians — were forced into ambulances on the runway to be strip-searched for signs of having given birth.

Qatar initially defended the actions of its officials, but apologised and said it would prosecute officers for violating procedure standards after an international investigation and a formal complaint from Australia.

Although Payne called the incident “grossly, grossly, disturbing, offensive”, Labor leader Anthony Albanese criticised Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Payne for not immediately speaking to their Qatari counterparts.

What’s at stake?

Qatar is Australia’s second-largest two-way trading partner in the Middle East and North Africa region. Before COVID-19 hit, 3000 Australians lived there and 40,000 visited annually.

After the airport incident, Qatar shut down a $300 million lamb trade deal with Australia — although Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said he didn’t think the two incidents were related.

Australia is also relying on Qatar Airways to bring stranded nationals home during the pandemic.

Australia and Qatar’s relationship is friendly and our trade relationship is important, former director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University Amin Saikal told Crikey.

“Many Australian expats work within Qatar, and many Qatar experts have considerable investments in Australia,” he said.

Although Australia raised concerns about the airline passengers’ treatment, Saikal said he thought the government had been “conscious not to engage in megaphone diplomacy with Qatar and jeopardise the relationship”.

Should we be doing more?

Fatima Yazbek from the Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights told Crikey she’s not sure what more can be done to secure Sarlak’s release.

“Usually Australian authorities know that they cannot affect the Gulf states’ decisions much because of the nature of the governments there,” she said.

“The local laws in the Gulf are issued to serve the governments, not to facilitate the people’s lives. And usually the royal families control everything … there are huge concerns regarding the legal system and fair trials in the Gulf states, including Qatar.”

Yazbek says Australia could have done more: “Those women’s rights were violated with no explanation … the safety, well-being, and dignity of any individual should be a priority of their government, and that should be protected by all means in any place.”

But she warns tensions could already be rising: “Having the Australian government speaking publicly, condemning the act, and asking for explanations, ahead of Qatar’s hosting the World Cup 2022, is something Qatari authorities won’t accept easily.”