Last updated: 21 October, 2013

Qatar upholds 15-year sentence against maverick poet

Qatar’s top court upheld a 15-year jail sentence Monday against a poet convicted of incitement against the regime, despite the emirate’s support for uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world.

“The Court of Cassation sentenced Mohammed al-Ajami to 15 years in prison,” confirming the sentence given to the poet by an appeals court in February, his lawyer Nejib al-Naimi told AFP.

He described Monday’s court ruling as “a political and not a judicial decision.”

Ajami’s sole recourse now is to appeal to Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani for clemency.

“I hope the emir will grant him an amnesty,” Naimi said.

Naimi had repeatedly requested a retrial for his client, but “we are not living in a democracy where can demand a new investigation.”

He said Ajami had been held in solitary confinement for two years.

London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International called for Monday’s ruling to be “overturned immediately”.

“Amnesty International considers Mohammed al-Ajami a prisoner of conscience held solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“He should be released immediately and unconditionally and his verdict quashed.

“It is particularly alarming to see a sentence like this from Qatar — which is branding itself as a country that embraces the arts and purports to respect international human rights standards.”

Ajami was arrested in November 2011 after the publication of his “Jasmine poem,” which criticised governments across the Gulf region in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings.

“We are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive elite,” he wrote, referring to the North African country which was the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

In a clear allusion to Qatar, home to a major US base, he wrote: “I hope that change will come in countries whose ignorant leaders believe that glory lies in US forces.”

Throughout his trial, his lawyer insisted there was no evidence Ajami had publicly recited the poem, a key part of the prosecution case.

A lower court had sentenced Ajami to life in prison before an appeals court reduced the jail term to 15 years.

Naimi, a former justice minister, had argued that on the charges levelled against him, his client ought to be liable to a maximum sentence of five years in jail.

Qatar is itself an absolute monarchy but it was a key supporter of the rebellion that ousted and killed veteran Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi and is also a leading champion of the rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

It also provided financial support to the now ousted government of Egypt’s first elected president Mohamed Morsi.

Its huge gas wealth and small population has meant that it has been spared domestic dissent.

Kuwaiti political analyst Ayed Manae described the sentence against Ajami as “harsh” and “unfortunate and regrettable for a poet.”

“This poet must be treated as a Qatari citizen expressing an opinion,” Manae told AFP.

“Authorities in the Gulf monarchies must in general show more tolerance towards intellectuals who criticise policies or corruption matters.”

With the notable exception of Bahrain, where the Sunni ruling family has faced persistent pro-democracy protests led by the kingdom’s Shiite majority, the Gulf states have been largely spared the unrest that has rocked other parts of the Arab world.

But Gulf governments have been quick to crack down heavily on any sign of serious dissent.

Neighbouring Saudi Arabia has “ratcheted up the repression” since 2009, with the arbitrary detention and torture of activists, Amnesty said in a report published on Monday.

In the United Arab Emirates, the top court jailed 69 Islamists for up to 15 years in July on charges of plotting to overthrow the government, at the end of a mass trial criticised by human rights groups.