A Duke student's quest to free his father from a Qatari prison | National | Indy Week
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A Duke student's quest to free his father from a Qatari prison 

Crime and punishment

click to enlarge The Downs family (left to right): John, Margaret, Nancy, Tom and Nick - PHOTO COURTESY WWW.JOHNWDOWNS.COM
  • Photo courtesy www.johnwdowns.com
  • The Downs family (left to right): John, Margaret, Nancy, Tom and Nick

It was a steamy August evening when Nick Downs pulled up to his family's concrete block home in Doha, Qatar, to find several black Land Cruisers and Range Rovers parked in front.

Nick entered the iron gate and strode through a brick and grass courtyard to the front door, which stood open. Inside, Qatari police officers swarmed the home, unhooking the family computer, rifling through dresser drawers and interrogating his father, John, in the bedroom.

"There's been a security leak at your father's office," Nick's mother, Nancy, told him.

Shortly afterward, John Downs emerged from the bedroom, his face ashen.

"Get your stuff and get out," he told Nick, who was scheduled to leave for the United States that evening to return to Duke University, where he was a sophomore.

Nick boarded his flight to the U.S., and during his daylong trip, he wondered what had happened several time zones away. "I didn't know what to think at that point," recalls Nick, who graduates from Duke in May. "I thought it would blow over in a day or two."

But days have turned into years. After spending 18 months in solitary confinement, 54-year-old John Downs, an American citizen, geophysicist and father of three, is serving a life sentence in a Qatari prison for espionage.

The Downs family has hired lawyers in the U.S. and Qatar. They've spoken with ambassadors and other Qatari officials. They've sent hundreds of letters to high-ranking emirs. They've met with the U.S. State Department and petitioned their congressional senators and representatives from their home state of Arkansas. But no one wants to touch the case of John Wesley Downs III.

"Every story like this starts with a key mistake, a moral failure, and this is no exception," reads a post from Downs' blog. He sends letters from prison to his family, who post them online at www.johnwdowns.com.

In May 2005, Downs, disgruntled with his boss at Qatar Petroleum, where he worked as seismic data analyst, sent an e-mail to the Iranian embassy in Doha. In that letter, Downs offered to sell technical data regarding Qatari oil and natural gas wells. (The information, Downs writes on his blog, was obsolete.)

The summer passed without a response. Then on that August morning three and a half years ago, Downs received an e-mail telling him to bring the information; money had been left for him in the desert. Downs went to a spot near the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Doha, the Qatari capital. When Downs arrived, Qatari police, reportedly tipped by the Iranians who thought the e-mail was a CIA ploy, arrested and searched him, but found nothing. They took Downs to his home, where they seized data tapes from his dresser drawers. It was the last time Nick saw his father outside a prison cell.

"The public prosecutor told us it would blow over," said Nick, who played a pivotal role in communicating with lawyers and other officials about the case. "Then the prosecutor's demeanor changed suddenly and there was political pressure every step of the way."

For the first eight months in solitary, Downs had no access to a lawyer. When he finally spoke with an attorney, the defense learned it couldn't submit evidence, including memos from Qatar Petroleum permitting employees to take data tapes home. Frightened, potential witnesses refused to testify or had left the country.

"We suspect the oil minister interfered," Nick said. "He testified at my dad's trial, saying any data hypothetically would've been dangerous to the Middle East and Qatar."

However, the Iranians couldn't have viewed data on the tapes found at the Downs home without high-security encryption software, Landmark, designed by Halliburton in Houston. Sale of the software must be approved by the Pentagon, and requires a Landmark engineer to install 20 CDs on customized servers and workstations. Then the user must get a 30-digit license code from Houston to start the software. Considering the tense relations between Iran and the U.S., it is unlikely the Defense Department would have approved the software sale.

And Downs maintains the data found at his home was not the information he had offered to sell, merely routine backup tapes.

Nonetheless, a judge found Downs guilty of espionage and sentenced him to life in prison.

"We felt hopeful about the appeal," Downs wrote in his blog. "As my lawyer said, 'You gave nothing to Iran. You gave nothing to police. The tapes were useless without the software."

But in November 2007, a Qatari appeals court upheld the conviction and sentence. In 2008, the Qatari equivalent of the Supreme Court did the same.

John Downs grew up near Eureka Springs, Ark., and, like his father, became a geophysicist working in the oil business. (Nick is also a geology major at Duke.) "He had a rock hammer at a very young age," recalls Downs' sister, Julie Van Woy.

After graduating from the University of Arkansas with two master's degrees, Downs worked for energy companies in Texas and Louisiana. In 1997, Downs took a job with Qatar Petroleum, the state-owned oil company, and moved his family to Qatar. Although living abroad appealed to Downs' sense of adventure, his working conditions were difficult. He earned $90,000 a year—low for a geophysicist—and the workplace was rife with politics, rivalries and favoritism.

"We shared similar frustrations with the conditions," said Donald Beenham, a Canadian citizen who worked with Downs at Qatar Petroleum, and has since retired from the industry. Last year, he wrote a letter to the Qatari emir (PDF, 207 KB) on Downs' behalf.

"There was a lot of unprofessional conduct. It was an environment that most professionals from the West would find difficult."

The two images of Downs—the logical, cool-headed scientist and the vengeful employee—don't mesh. "It's out of character and it isn't," Beenham said. "I look back and think frustration got the better of John.

"I would stake my entire career and reputation on John," Beenham added. "It was a foolish prank that went terribly wrong beyond anything John could have conceived. He was capable of being smarter, but he absolutely was not a spy."

Just weeks before his arrest, Downs had accepted a job at the Saudi energy company Saudi Aramco, which paid better and offered benefits and a pension. "There is no way John would have jeopardized that," Beenham said. "What you have to understand about working in these countries is the level of frustration can get to you."

In fact, Downs' job switch may have further soured his relationship with Qatar Petroleum. "In Middle Eastern culture, you have to be careful in dissolving relationships so people don't lose face," Beenham said. "They would have made it extremely difficult to get out. They keep your passports."

When Beenham left the company, he sent his wife home, then got an exit visa under the auspices of taking a vacation. He never returned.

"John was a critical component to their projects and for that hole to be left when he resigned, people would have flipped out. Somebody decided to make him pay. John foolishly gave him the opportunity."

The politics of Downs' case is mired in U.S.-Qatari relations. The two countries are friendly, due in part because of Qatari's energy supply. Not surprisingly, Qatar donated $100 million to victims of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf states—home to many major American oil companies.

Qatar, a peninsula on the Persian Gulf, also serves as a logistics and military hub for American operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to a 2008 Congressional Research Service report (PDF, 894 KB).

"The U.S. also collects a lot of intelligence from there," said Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch's deputy director of the Middle East and North African division. "A lot of documents captured in Iraq were sent to Qatar for processing." [Read a 2008 report on Qatar produced by Human Rights Watch, which monitors human rights around the world. PDF, 128 KB]

Despite these strategic arrangements, there is no prisoner-transfer agreement between the U.S. and Qatar, which should allow Downs to serve his sentence or receive a new trial here. He is dependent on U.S. political and diplomatic pressure or the willingness of Qatari officials to free him. Complicating diplomatic matters, a Qatari citizen was imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, although he was later returned to Qatar.

The U.S. government remains tight-lipped. A State Department spokesman told the Indy, "There is no information I can share with you." A Justice Department official responded to a request for comment: "We don't comment on specific cases."

The Downs family is scheduled to meet with State Department and congressional officials this week. Meanwhile, Downs is writing short stories and a novel. He sends his stories to his family for posting online.

"Writing is an escape for him," Nick said. "It's really remarkable, his state of mind. He's the most upbeat of all of us."

On his blog, Downs acknowledges his mistake, but pleads for leniency. "Not only did I ruin my career, livelihood and ability to support my family, but I chose a path that has brought incredible shame to myself and to those I love most. I humbly beg you to consider sending me home to my family."

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