Jailed Qatari poet Mohammed al-Ajami
A Qatar court sentenced a poet to life imprisonment on Thursday for insulting the nation’s ruler. The move has fuelled fears over the wealthy nation’s commitment to freedom of expression as world leaders, including two UK ministers, fly into Doha this weekend for climate change talks.
Human rights organisations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have expressed concern over the Qatari poet Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, 37, since his arrest in November 2011 for charges including ‘inciting to overthrow the regime’.
The charges appear to relate to one poem that insulted the Qatari emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, and another, titled ‘Jasmine Poem’, supporting the Tunisian uprising and criticising Arab governments.
The ruling, delivered in a closed court in Doha, is brief. It reads, in Arabic, ‘[t]he court rules that the defendant Mohamed Rashed Hassan al-Ajami has been sentenced to life in prison’. Al-Ajami was not present in the courtroom and supporters say he has only attended one of at least six court hearings.
Al-Ajami, who has a wife and four young children, has not seen his family since his arrest a year ago.
Qatar, one of the world’s wealthiest nations, home to global broadcaster al-Jazeera and a strong critic of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, sought to cast itself as a broker of diplomacy and a champion of liberty and freedom of expression in the Gulf. In a speech in September, Emir al Thani said, ‘[w]e firmly believe in the importance of the freedom of expression and the right of the individual to express his [views]’.
Yet a heavily criticised draft law, approved by Qatar’s legislative council in June, seeks to impose fines of up to £170,000 for broadcasting information that would ‘throw relations between the state and the Arab and friendly states into confusion’ or abuse or offend the ruling family.
‘Qatar talks about freedom and establishing a centre for press freedom,’ said Ali al-Hattab, a human rights activist, who is close to al-Ajami and was in Doha as the decision was handed down. ‘But it’s a kind of double standard,’ he told the Bureau, referring to the Doha Centre for Media Freedom that opened in 2008.
Amnesty International has called for al-Ajami’s conviction to be quashed. ‘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,’ said Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director Philip Luther.
‘The Qatari authorities are more sensitive with the Arab Spring, and al-Ajami talked about freedom, tyranny and rights,’ said al-Hattab. ‘The authorities want to pass a message to the people.’
Labour MP and Treasurer of the All Party Parliamentary British-Qatar Group Jeremy Corbyn has added his voice to the criticism. ‘It is an appalling violation of freedom of speech and laws of freedom of expression and so I do have concerns on this and on the human rights situation in Qatar in general.’
He told the Bureau: ‘I will write to the Qatar Embassy concerning this case and draw it to the attention of other members of the group.’ He added: ‘I believe that in general the British Government takes a soft line on the human rights of a majority of Gulf State nations because arms sales bases and trade relations take priority, Bahrain being the most obvious example.’
Corbyn has tabled an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons that ‘calls on the British Government to make urgent representations to the government of Qatar concerning such extreme censoring of its citizens and encouraging it to take steps to ensure his immediate release’.
Beyond freedom of expression, the UN Committee Against Torture expressed concern this month that Qatar’s legal safeguards – including the right to contact relatives and a trial within reasonable periods – were not being respected, and upbraided Qatar for reports of torture and the abuse of migrant workers.
Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani attended Britain’s Sandhurst Military Academy, graduating in 1971. He regularly visits the UK, including twice in 2012, and was also present to announce the official inauguration of The Shard building in south London, which is 95% owned by Qatar.
The UK relies heavily on imports of liquid natural gas (LNG) from Qatar, with Qatari imports rising rapidly according to government reports and soon to meet 20% of the UK’s LNG needs. Qatar is this week hosting the international climate change conference, attended by a UK delegation including energy and climate change secretary Edward Davey and minister Greg Barker.
Prime minister David Cameron wrote to Qatari officials in July in support of 13-year-old Adam Jones, who has reportedly been kept under virtual house arrest in Doha by his dead father’s relatives since 2009. Jones has expressed his wish to be reunited with his British mother and Cameron promised to help Adam and his family.