Qatar sparks anger as it jails poet for 15 years

Qatar's sheikhs and the emir, above, were poetry subjects. Picture: Getty
Qatar's sheikhs and the emir, above, were poetry subjects. Picture: Getty
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A QATARI poet jailed for life for criticising the emir and attempting to incite revolt has had his sentence cut to 15 years, in a case human rights groups said showed hypocrisy by the Gulf state, which has supported ­uprisings abroad.

In his verses, Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami praised the Arab Spring revolts that toppled four dictators, often with the help of money and other support from Qatar, which also backs rebels in Syria.

But the poet also criticised Qatar’s absolute monarch and spoke, for example, of “sheikhs playing on their PlayStations”.

He was sentenced to life in prison three months ago, but appealed against the conviction and sentence, arguing that he should be freed as there was no evidence he had recited the offending verses in public, and so there was no basis for charging him with incitement.

His term was reduced yesterday to 15 years. Al-Ajami shouted “There is no law for this” as he was led away by guards from ­Qatar’s court of appeal.

Defence lawyer Najib al-Naimi said the poet would now appeal to the supreme court, describing the unanimous decision by the three-judge appeal court as a miscarriage of justice.

He said: “There is politics behind this. They are trying to demonstrate to the Qatari citizens that if anyone opens his mouth, they will have the same treatment … to set an example.”

Among offending passages from one of Ajami’s poems, translated from Arabic, was the line: “If the sheikhs cannot carry out justice, we should change the power and give it to the beautiful woman.”

Qatar, a major natural gas producer and home to a US military base, has escaped the unrest seen in other Arab countries. The emir has taken a high-profile role at times in calling for human rights – for example, when he went to Gaza in November, the first foreign leader to make such a visit in years.

Qatar-based Al Jazeera television has closely covered the Arab revolts, though it gave scant coverage to an uprising in neighbouring Bahrain, ruled by another Gulf Arab monarchy.

The Qatari government has also taken a prominent role in the confrontation between Sunni Muslim-ruled Arab states like itself and Saudi Arabia, and Iran and its Shiite allies in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere.

Qatar supported the street protests that ousted rulers in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. It also supported the Nato-backed uprising in Libya and is backing the rebels battling president Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war.

But freedom of expression is tightly controlled in the small Gulf state which is home to less than two million people. Self-censorship is prevalent among national newspapers and other media outlets. Qatar has no organised political opposition.

When Ajami was given the life sentence, Amnesty International’s Middle East director Philip Luther said: “It is deplorable that Qatar, which likes to paint itself internationally as a country that promotes freedom of expression, is indulging in what appears to be such a flagrant abuse of that right.”

Ali al-Hattab, a Saudi who tracks human rights in the Gulf, said yesterday’s ruling presented a “very bad image for Qatar”.

He said: “They talk about democracy and equality, but they won’t give people like Mohammed the freedom to speak, because it threatens their power and control. All he has done is recite a poem. How can they charge him with trying to overthrow a regime?”

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Qatar’s attorney general, Ali bin Fetais al-Marri, said: “We, as public prosecution, will resort to the Supreme Court to challenge the judgment, hoping to restore it as was, a life term. However, in any case, we will honour the [decision] of the court.”